Japan’s Faltering Employment System
By Erik Lebs
On April 1, 2015
It has been just over seven years since the 2008 Lehman Shock, and while the Japanese economy continues to trundle onwards, a rising debate about longterm employment security dominates the business and op-ed sections of leading newspapers. What has long been a tightly structured hierarchy of strict employment practices is gradually being eroded by economic uncertainty and aging demographic shift.
Japan’s employment system is broken down into several roles. Seishain constitutes regular, full time employment, while haken (dispatch/temp), keiyaku (short-term contract), and arubaito (part-time) make up the bulk of “irregular” employment.
Irregular employment positions are easily dispensable, without any guarantee of long-term job security, pay raises, bonuses, or severance pay. As companies increase the number of haken and keiyaku work, available seishain positions are decreasing, and young Japanese people are finding it more and more difficult to find secure, meaningful jobs.
Japan was built on the infallibility of its institutions.
According to a government survey released this past January, 38.2% of the Japanese workforce in 2014 comprised non-regular employees, a 16.5% increase over the last two decades, and the first time that non-regular employees in the country topped the 20 million mark.
Part-time work is most commonly found in the retail industry (24.6%), while dispatch workers are employed most often in the manufacturing industry (36.1%), and contract workers in the information and communication (7.9%), and real estate industries (7.4) (figures taken from 2011 JILPT report).
Meanwhile, according to the same 2011 report, dispatch and contract workers express a desire to find full-time employment with 37.1% and 34.9% respectively responding that lack of opportunity to work as a regular employee as the reason for their current employment status.
The increasing volatility of Japan’s employment system is not an isolated economic phenomenon. In a largely homogenous culture (98.5% of the country is ethnically Japanese), the nation’s employment system is tied to specific social values revised and reinterpreted since the Meiji period, and especially since the post-war period (1945 to present). And so it is important to examine what implications the changing conditions of the employment system suggest about contemporary Japanese society as a whole.
Japan was built on the infallibility of its institutions. Students go to public schools, exposed to the same curriculum in the country towns of Kyushu as their peers in Tokyo. From ages six to eighteen, regimentation, repetition, and ritual are the order of the day. Then on to a university system that’s judged on ranking over academic rigor. By their third year in college, 20-year-old kids are expected to don suits and find office jobs at corporations that will hopefully hire them for lifelong seishain positions, with plenty of overtime and comfortable bonuses. It’s in these offices, that, just like school, day-to-day life will be governed by the three Rs mentioned previously.
The millions of Japanese who traverse this institutionally-dependent path are referred as shakai jin (lit. translation: “society person”). The expectations of the shakai jin are simple: follow the path dictated by Japan’s institutions, emulate the values of one’s superiors, and, with some luck, life will turn out just fine: a spouse, a nuclear family, a superfluous insurance plan, a new TV, all in a freshly built apartment complex.
Indeed, this Japanese dream is not dissimilar to the dreams held by many throughout the developed world. But the discerning factor of the Japanese dream is its intersection with the impenetrable, self-censoring nature of the country’s national discourse, which purports that shakai jin values are the very essence of Japaneseness.Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson
Over the last two decades, and especially in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, we see this system faltering. Not because of top-down political decisions or bottom-up reforms, but because corporations can no longer bare the risk of hiring employees for full-time positions.
And so those third year college kids, stuck in the throes of job hunting season, are finding it harder and harder to meet societal expectations of them, unable to attain the shakai jin Japanese dream. There are of course those who do find coveted office jobs. On the other hand, women fresh out of university are working at departments stores, men are bouncing around temp jobs while living at home, and many are unsure of what to do when the institutions that have raised them fail to live up to their ideals.
Politicians and economists meanwhile strategize methods of restoring this system. This is the only system known since the end of the war, and so it must be restored. “Restoration before reformation” is perhaps the best framing of this conversation. Reforming the system, innovating a new, more flexible system requires change, and change is risky. So the topic of debate is focused on restoration.
Despite all the skills, values and knowledge taught so rigorously to such a large proportion of the population, there’s one key component lacking: the ability for improvisation. In a country where individuals regularly employ first person plural nouns (eg “We Japanese think…”), citizens lack the vocabulary to directly challenge this manufactured Japanese narrative – to improvise their own version of success based on the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired through years of education.
While Japan has all the tools to live up to its status as a top three global economy, it lacks the improvisational tools to do it. Meanwhile, Japan’s newly graduated youth are climbing to the top of the diving board, looking down at the pool several meters below, uncertain whether they’re ready to jump yet.