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Monday, January 28, 2008

The Japanese employment system

Having just spent three hours writing eighteen 3 essays (18 A4 pages) on Work and Society in Japan, I don't feel too inclined to write another on the subject, but I do want to mention how studying the subject has influenced my take on Japan.

Until I started revising for this topic, my view of Work in Japan was not all that positive. I saw big corporations eating up people's lives, tying their noses to grindstones, attempting to rein in rash streaks of individualism. Conformity reigned supreme. And I saw the secondary labour market, full of underpaid oldies, immigrants and students, eeking out a living on 800 yen per hour.

I saw lifetime employment going down the drain, and Freeters all over the place.

Of course, that's not really the case at all, although the media would like us to think that it is. The fact is that lifetime employment is probably going to be around for a long time, albeit in the form of lifetime employment within a group of businesses rather than a single enterprise (oldies at Toyota get moved into subsidiaries etc, bit like Amakudari only they get a 30% cut in pay instead of a golden handshake!). Age-related pay won't be disappearing anytime soon either - it'll just adapt. Freeters have always been there, just unreported, and most of them end up working in the end. I reckon as the number of employees continues to fall, so the minimum wage will rise - at the moment, if you work full time in Japan on the minimum wage you are technically living in relative poverty! How about that for a minimum!

The thing that really encourages me though is the signs that employers are beginning to accept that employees are real people, people who unlike their post-war ancestors will not be content with working every hour under the sun for the sake of the company. Thus, we're seeing more flexibility in contracts offered.

Some companies are taking steps to reach beyond the internal labour market when recruiting (mid-career switches from one employer to another in Japan are relatively rare: only 18% of Japanese managers have had more than one job, vs. 70% in the US, due to the closed internal labour market).

And that's the other thing: a job for life in the UK sounds like absolute drudgery, but a job for life in Japan can mean a new job every three years what with the internal circulation system and progressive acquirement of skills / promotion (at least in big firms).

Another great step forward is the introduction of child-care in 2001 leaving Japan with the best childcare system in the world (now they just have to encourage people to actually use it!). Most dad's in Japan aren't even aware that the law gives them two weeks paternity leave following birth, and those men working in companies that have long-term schemes are so scared of being overlooked for promotions or of 'letting the team down' that they won't use it! But I reckon that will change, as the Government invests more in the baby-making industry.

I think the main feeling that I've come away with though is that Japanese society / working practices are moving in the right direction. They're moving towards increased diversity and respect for individual choices, and away from the influence of dominant social norms that stem from a time of post-war scarcity.

I really like the idea of living in a country that is undergoing big changes, and being aware of those changes. (I mean, I'm sure the UK is undergoing big changes, but I don't know about it except when I accidentally catch sight of the Daily Mail which tells me that immigrants have caused a 30% rise in violent crime ...well spreading that news is really going to help the situation isn't it...). It gives me that sense of excitement, which I recall feeling when living in Tokyo for the first time in 2001. Stuff is happening, and overall social trends are heading in a really positive direction.

OK, so Japan's economy may not exactly be in tip-top shape, but at least the country is no longer spending the equivalent of 1~2% of WORLD GDP on construction (hard to believe, but they did it!). There's more money going into the environment, increased diversity in education, more foreigners than ever (will we see multiculturalism in Japan in my lifetime? I think so!) and a growing organic sector (no pun intended). OK, so Tesco have moved in, but at least there's very few greenfield sites for them to decimate as they have done in the UK.

And of course, Japan has *Twinkle* too.

So, all in all, I have a far less cynical opinion of Japanese society than I did have. Whilst affluence hasn't brought the Japanese any great quality of life (I mean, come on, they all live in rabbit hutches), it has now given the younger generation the chance to stop and question what is really important in life, and I believe that as a result of that we're going to see more creativity and pursuit of passions in Japan than ever before. I look forward to being a part of it.

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