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.
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.