Bean-Counting American-Style

Demand for U.S.-certified accountants is soaring in Japan

Yujiro Kurokawa hit rock bottom in 1997. That's when the graduate of Japan's prestigious Keio University found himself working the graveyard shift at Tokyo's biggest fish market to make ends meet. "I hit a personal low, but I wasn't ready to give up," says Kurokawa, who had lost his job as a foreign-exchange trader in a cost-cutting drive the previous year. With his remaining savings, he enrolled in a yearlong course to qualify as a U.S.-certified public accountant. He passed the test in 1998. Now, Kurokawa, 35, is employed as a senior manager at KPMG Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. "The U.S. CPA gave me a new lease on life," he says.

More and more Japanese are braving the exam of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) as a way out of dead-end jobs or to get ahead in the corporate rat race. The trend comes as Japan Inc. is under enormous pressure from foreign and domestic investors to make its books more transparent. Employers are seeking out Japanese with U.S. CPA credentials because they are conversant with the type of international business norms now being introduced in Japan--from American-style accounting practices to English-language earning reports.

Many accountants are also scrambling to keep up with a raft of rule changes in Japan over the past few years. For instance, until 1999, the country's publicly traded companies were not required to include subsidiaries in mid-year earnings reports, leaving plenty of room for balance-sheet shell games. Another sweeping change is the requirement that companies carry securities on their books at current values and not the purchase price. "Japanese accounting standards are shifting to U.S. accounting standards," says Jeffrey Alfano, an audit senior manager at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu in Tokyo.

That's creating new opportunities for U.S.-credentialed bean counters. Only accountants certified in Japan can sign off on domestic audits of balance sheets, but a U.S.-issued certificate is a plus for anyone handling offshore bookkeeping, complex derivative transactions, or mergers and acquisitions. Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu hired 55 U.S.-certified accountants last year and plans to pick up a similar number this year, while the Tokyo office of Arthur Andersen plans to add up to 40, bringing its total to 130. Major Japanese accounting firms such as ChuoAoyama Audit Corp. and Shin Nihon are following suit. "Demand for U.S.-trained CPAs has really taken off as Japanese companies go more global and more foreign firms enter Japan," says Andersen partner Teruo Ozaki.

It's not just savoir-faire about global business practices that's prized by the corporate world. U.S.-credentialed CPAs are also helping offset a chronic shortage of Japanese-trained accountants. Of the 11,052 people that took the Japanese test last year, a mere 838 passed--and most of them only after repeated attempts. The AICPA test is said to be easier, yet candidates must have a good grasp of English.

FLEXIBLE CRITERIA. Thus cram schools are springing up all over Tokyo to prepare Japanese for the U.S. exam. At O-Hara College of Business, a chain of adult education centers, students pay upwards of $3,000 for a 12-month prep course. "Our target is young businesspeople who want to obtain skills that set them apart from the crowd," says Yukinobu Ishida, who heads the U.S. CPA program at O-Hara. Students must also shell out for a trip to a test center in the U.S to take the two-day exam. Although questions are the same nationwide, registration and certification requirements differ from state to state. Not surprisingly, the most popular destinations for Japanese have the most flexible criteria: Delaware, Illinois, Montana, and the Pacific Territory of Guam.

Officials in Guam face a veritable invasion of foreign test-takers, from just 117 in 1996 to 3,148 last year, with Japanese and South Koreans accounting for most of the increase. "In the past, the entire exam could have been held in one room," says Mack Ezzell, executive director of the Guam Board of Accountancy. "Now, we book ballrooms at hotels six months in advance." Those Japanese that ace the U.S. test have no trouble finding a job back home. Accounting may be dull, but as Kurokawa knows, it sure beats being a fishmonger.

By Chester Dawson in Tokyo

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