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Soichiro Tsunakawa, 22, is a seventh-year student at the Tokyo National College of Technology. When he graduates next spring, he has a job waiting at Sony, where he will work in a laboratory that makes sensors for digital cameras. (Photo by Blaine Harden)

HACHIOJI, Japan – When he was 14 and living at home, no electronic device was safe from Soichiro Tsunakawa. He took apart cassette recorders, stereo speakers and all of his family’s mobile phones. He swears that when he put them back together, they always worked.

The Sony Corporation apparently believes him. The seventh-year student here at the Tokyo National College of Technology has a job waiting for him at a Sony semiconductor plant in southern Japan, where he’ll work in a laboratory that makes sensors for digital cameras.

“I can’t wait to get to the factory,” said Tsunakawa, 22. “I love to make things.”

To prove his point, he showed up for an interview with a whirring, beeping, self-propelled robot of his own design and construction. It could detect and obey his hand signals.

Tsunakawa made a life-altering decision when he was 15. Instead of staying at home with his parents and attending a nearby high school with childhood friends, he moved into a dormitory here on the campus of one of Japan’s 57 colleges of technology, which are known as Kosen.

Living about two hours away from home, he obeyed strict rules that banned smoking and drinking and required everyone to be in his or her room by 7:45 p.m. The rules, though, were not a problem—Tsunakawa barely noticed them. He has no regrets about skipping out on teen culture.

“I studied hardware for five years and then I realized that I need to know software, so I signed up for two more years of advanced work at Kosen,” he said. “My focus now is image-processing software.”

Lessons From Abroad

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As he spoke, his little robot was processing his hand signals and figuring out how not to roll off the top of a table.

Tsunakawa’s decision to stay on at Kosen beyond the standard five-year course is becoming increasingly common. The best high-tech jobs in Japan, as elsewhere, require increasing sophistication in computer engineering.  After seven years, Tsunakawa will have earned the equivalent of a master’s degree.

“If you compare Kosen graduates with university graduates, they are very competitive,” said Motohisa Kaneko, director of research at the Center for National University Finance and Management in Tokyo. “Employers are very eager to get Kosen grads because they are practical and have been motivated to become engineers since they were quite young.”

After a few years with Sony in Japan, Tsunakawa is likely to be transferred abroad. It is part of a long-standing push by Japanese corporations into low-cost, foreign-based manufacturing. Many major companies send their best young engineers to work in factories where the common language is likely to be English.

Tsunakawa has prepared by studying English at Kosen and by working in Australia and Malaysia as part of student exchange programs. Still, he says his English needs work. Among students at Kosen, he’s not alone: Administrators say that one of their most difficult tasks is persuading young engineers—who’ll spend countless hours writing software or working in labs—to devote time to language studies.

Since he became an advanced-level student, Tsunakawa has moved out of the dorm and back in with his parents. With twice-daily, two-hour train rides between home and school, he now has the exhausting schedule of a Japanese salary man.

Yet he has no complaints—he fills the time with homework and video games.

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