Japanese Employment, the Adventure

archive2

Being the stereotypically uncouth American, the proverbial unruly bull in the particularly fragile china shop, I intentionally decided to search for gainful employment this spring without undertaking one of Japan’s great social rituals: shūshoku katsudō, the rigid and formal three-to-four month job search conducted at the beginning of the university student’s fourth year. Had I made like my fellow graduates and spent the first months of 2005 attending informational meetings of three dozen companies and then revisiting firms up to eight times for round after round of interviews, I would have most likely found myself with a splendid naitei (内定, informal acceptance) from the physical distribution management division of an esteemed meat manufacturer and coasted through my last year without a single worry about my future. (Except, perhaps, the eternal question — IRA vs. Roth IRA?)

Instead, I chose to dedicate my time to my thesis, and this vile act of hubris meant a somewhat chaotic and unpredictable last three months of job hunting. Things worked out very well in the end, but even one of my interviewers asked me point blank, “Uhh… why is it that you didn’t look for a job a year before your graduation like everyone else?” I immediately admitted my folly, and promised to tell my vast online readership not to follow in my sad example.

In the days of the post-war “lifetime employment system,” college students used the brief months of shū-katsu to plan their remaining 60 years left on Earth. At the tender age of 21, students’ ability to answer cliched questions from old grumpy men decided their entire fates. Working for former zaibatsu like Mitsubishi could mean kids in private school, drinking Blue Label mizuwari in Ginza every weeknight, and plenty of extra income to blow on differently-classed women in their late 20s. Working at a second-rate firm meant ill-fitting discount suits and reading Weekly Playboy every week for the schadenfreude. But no matter the case, you were always just picking up leftovers from the Spartan memorization kings at Tokyo University anyway.

Originally, the Game began shortly before graduation, but companies kept starting earlier and earlier to beat out rivals for access to the greatest human capital at the elite universities. Finally, a stalemate was reached, and things settled down into early Spring of the students’ fourth year. These days, foreign banks and financial institutions start up their recruitment in winter and scoop up a large number of Todai geeks before Japanese companies even have the chance.

For many obvious reasons, I decided to advertise my services in a different manner than the shinsotsu saiyō (new graduate admission) model. I was sending around sans-serif English resumes, but my future employer still required me to fill out the Japanese rirekisho (resume).

Just as I had imagined, the standard Japanese application form still reflects the stone-cold recruitment system of the Showa era. Opposed to the American style of resumes, where applicants tailor the form and content to best reflect their identity and accomplishments, young Japanese job seekers pop into their local bookstore and buy the standard blank rirekisho. The form must be completed in black pen (you can still tell everything about a person in Japan by their penmanship), and a misspelling or stray mark means starting over. The information required: name, address, school history, work history (part-time work generally not included), awards, punishments, and licenses — leaving no place to actually describe yourself in any manner of detail. The Japanese form also requires a photograph, because, unlike the message of those insipid kindergarden posters, you can certainly judge a book by its cover.

The elite white-collar salarymen of today sometimes switch jobs, so there is a more detailed chūto saiyou (mid-career) application form. But in general, you are no more than your birthday, academic pedigree, and one-sentence personal statement. (Turned out that I wanted to “give my all.”)

I didn’t have a lot of formal work experience, but I do a lot of crazy things that fit nowhere on a Japanese employment application, like freelance writing for American magazines, freelance research for ad firms, and a “blog” with too many readers. But if you are a Japanese student trying to curry favor with the Big Companies, the last thing you want to do is suggest that you’ve ever had anything on your mind outside of total and complete dedication to your future employer. In the old employment scheme, companies had their one, unique “correct” way of doing things, and employees with prior experience often posed a great threat to standard protocol.

Of course, everything in Japan is in totally flux, and the employment system is becoming somewhat more relaxed and “American.” From watching the college students in my class over the last three years, however, my impression is that while changing jobs (tenshoku) for upper-level occupations is now a possibility, getting through the narrow gate right out of college is still an unbending requirement. Graduate school is the only acceptable alternative. Now with social stratification becoming more and more extreme, shūshoku katsudou actually seems more important than ever. That first job may not last forever, but it still sets the course.

So comb your hair and use proper stroke order, boys.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
March 27, 2006

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

21 Responses

  1. r, Says:

    I thought you were somehow going to tie this in with the whole “Boys, be ambitious!” thing, since it would’ve provided the perfect ironic backdrop for your entry…

    http://www.lib.hokudai.ac.jp/collection/ClarkBibList/ambs.html

    Oh well!

    But congrats on landing a job, you ambitious boy, you!

  2. nat Says:

    you mean penmanship, not marksmanship…right?

  3. marxy Says:

    Oops. I fixed that error.

    Re: Boys, Be Ambitious!

    That’s just another tale of a washed-up American becoming infinitely famous in Japan.

  4. graham Says:

    he actually meant marxmanship.

  5. Boyrand Says:

    Anyang, Marxy! Ahoy! Here are some tidbits about Japan in case you had not heard – noone gets older than the Japanese – their country is MAD OLD. So many olds! Also, their civilization includes the Jomon when things were a long time ago.

    Anyways, now that you know better, did you also know that the main extra-Japan Japanese enclave is Brazil, nearly at Japan’s antipode?

    But also, as long as grammatical pedantry is allowed in your commenting, I think you mean “despite” rather than “unlike” “those insipid…” Ha ha ha! I love pedantry.

    My point is this: Do you think that the chick in Just One Of The Guys got screwed on future roles for having played a gender-ambiguuous role? Because (1) she was pretty good (2) people were pretty happy when they got to see her breasts.

    My point is this: Does your new career afford you a lot of opportunities to listen to decades old Western music in your Western apartment while pondering the mystery of why your woman left you? Related: can you guess which Western-friendly Japanese novelist I have read most extensively? Is it Abe? Is it Ishiguro? Maybe we’ll never know!

  6. Antonin Says:

    Ambition pays. Congrats !

  7. ndkent Says:

    It seems to me that a corporate culture that stands rigid by their traditional application policy says that their company is probably not a suitable climate for you. I guess you could say that the procedures are a waste of your time but then again in doing so they are probably keeping you away from a position that will untimately be a waste of your time (and theirs) no matter what you may have to offer. Now maybe your goal is to chalk up some time in a major company, pay some bills, put it on the resume, but then again wouldn’t their application policy be the writing on the wall that it’s not going to be an experience where you fit in. What it says is that company is less interested in your potential contributions than fitting into their way of going about business

    At least in the U.S. most of the future employers have the (bloated) staff to call everyone on that resume. You can’t put down anyone on your resume that might, if called say something like you just didn’t fit in, that’s why you left. That’s assuming your goal is to do something for the short term. If it’s the long term then you should know the only way they conduct business as part of your preparation. If it’s for the short term then it’s a gamble, lets say they hypothetically hired you, can you jump to another job before they decide you just aren’t working out and they let you go?

    As to talent, if they are actually seriously looking for that then they would be recruiting specific individuals known in the field with those talents, not doing their standard screening of university grads for fresh staff.

    nick, someone who used to teach at am American university.

  8. check Says:

    David,

    In your opinion, how likely is it for a foreigner in Japan to actualize their full potential within the employment system?

    Likewise, if a foreigner is less likely to actualize themselves within Japan, do you feel this trade-off in their livelihood is acceptable?

  9. marxy Says:

    It seems to me that a corporate culture that stands rigid by their traditional application policy says that their company is probably not a suitable climate for you.

    I think that’s pretty much the logic behind my shu-katsu refusal. I originally only sent out resumes to gaishi-kei (foreign / foreign capital) firms, but ended up enrolling in an interesting hybrid experiment.

    As to talent, if they are actually seriously looking for that then they would be recruiting specific individuals known in the field with those talents, not doing their standard screening of university grads for fresh staff.

    Maybe “talent” is not the right word. “The ability to perform long hours of raw labor” is probably a better description of what they are looking for.

    In your opinion, how likely is it for a foreigner in Japan to actualize their full potential within the employment system?

    As someone at the beginning of the process, I have no authority to make any kind of useful statement. That being said, my impression has always been that Japanese companies have no need for foreign employees – at least no need to have foreigners on the normal escalator career path. It’s not just that they aren’t invited to the club: they’re a pain to train and generally add little value as the “generalists” most sei-shain become. You can always just hire foreigners as specialists and promise them less long-term increases in benefits.

    Likewise, if a foreigner is less likely to actualize themselves within Japan, do you feel this trade-off in their livelihood is acceptable?

    Foreigners’ inability to actualize is not really their fault. In the current environment, they will be not be afforded the same chances as their Japanese peers (although this may be justified.) Perhaps, however, Asian “foreigners” can self-actualize to a greater extent in Japan than back home.

    Things are changing. Foreign companies are exploding. It’s hard to really think this issue is resolved.

  10. jasong Says:

    David,

    Glad you found something. Is it music-related?

    I’ve often asked people: Why the photo stuck to the resume?

    Best response: So they know it’s actually you when you go in for the interview!

  11. marxy Says:

    Not music related. (Nor Music Related).

    Once you study the music industry, I think you’ll find it hard to want to be a part of it. I often tell people, if you like music, the last thing you’ll ever want to do is join the music business.

    Re: the picture on the application

    Again: it’s our weird Protestant orthodoxical values telling us that appearances don’t say everything about interiors. Confucians don’t see things that way.

  12. jasong Says:

    Not music related. (Nor Music Related).

    I beg your pardon?

    Once you study the music industry, I think you’ll find it hard to want to be a part of it. I often tell people, if you like music, the last thing you’ll ever want to do is join the music business.

    All that digging ended up putting you off. Film seems to be the opposite, thankfully.

  13. SB Says:

    I did it right but all I can think of is getting a new place to work with lower salary. And I’m spending all my money on stupid crappy miscellaneous crap. I have nowhere to go.

  14. r. Says:

    The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.
    -Hunter S. Thompson

  15. Chris_B Says:

    n your opinion, how likely is it for a foreigner in Japan to actualize their full potential within the employment system?

    No on e asked me, but golly I feel like chiming in! Unless your potential is centered around something uniquely Japanese, the answer is a resounding NO. The first japanese company I worked for, I stayed a year. I ended up doing nothing and got too bored. The shacho hired me for a specific talent but then never convinced his staff to use that talent. Now I’ve served almost 4 years at a mid to large sized company thats part of a group you have heard of. Again I was hired as a specialist. Very very little of my work in the last four years has involved that specialty. What they want out of me now and in the future is basically ningen kankei generalism. In the last four hears I’ve seen at least 50 foreign staff in my department come and go. Now there is only one who has any more tenure than me. FWIW, my work is (in theory) technical. There are no foreign general workers and only a few specialists in other departments. There are zero foreign managers anywhere in the company.

    Good luck Marxy, its gonna be a great learning experience if nothing else.

  16. check Says:

    Chris,

    I suppose my question then becomes, why do you think foreigners gravitate towards positions that undervalue and limit their potential?

    Idealism? Exoticism? Naiveté?

  17. Chris_B Says:

    all three. americans and UK folk often have the self delusion that they can “make a difference” or some such like that. in fact, were often hired under that guise but the reality is the system dont want to change and dont really want us there, at least not for very long.

    Theres also the factor that you find yourself here with bills to pay and maybe a family to support and you stick to it because as long as you stay here, it just aint gonna get better anywhere, at least not in the long run.

    I often think I coulda made something of myself, I coulda been a brick layer or a lathe operator, instead I became a sarariman.

  18. Dave Says:

    How likely is anyone to realise their full potential within an employment system full stop?

    It’s not that people gravitate towards positions that undervalue them and limit their potential, it’s that when you get there, it’s hard to get out, and that your potential might not be ‘what’s needed’ in the company.

    Nothing wrong with ningen kankei generalism, I would have thought… (but then I would have thought actual skills are handy too.)

  19. Johan Nystrom Says:

    Congratulations on your job! I got your album today, looking forward to getting into it over the next few days. Do make another one.

  20. adamu Says:

    Ack, sounds painful. I might be going through some decidedly non-traditional job-hunting in Japan myself in the near future.

    What bugs me (sort of) is the built-in application fee for each job – those passport photos are like 200 yen each or something!

  21. Chris_B Says:

    FWIW, every job I’ve had here either came through a headhunter or through word of mouth.