We can work it out

by Yoko Hani

“Naze hatarakunoka (Why Do We Work?)”;

“Hatarakutte nanda (What Does Working Mean?)”;

“Daisukina koto wo shite okanemochi ni naru (Become Rich Doing Things You Really Like)”;

“Yappari kaisha wa yametewa ikenai (Don’t Quit Your Company So Easily)”;

“Tenshokuo (Job-switching King)”;

“Kaisha wo yameru jikokuhyo (Timetable for Quitting a Company)”;

“Oishii shitsugyo seikatsu manual (Manual for a Happy Jobless Life)”:

In a country known for its citizens who live to work (rather than the other way round), this selection of recent books sends a clear message that something is afoot in the collective psyche of the Japanese — something, judging from the contradictory titles, that could certainly be described as a state of flux in its view of work.

These are just a few of the titles now colorfully cluttering the shelves of business section of bookstores, as buyers clamor for insights into that most central tradeoff — between “work” and “life.”

It might seem only natural that, with the economy firmly anchored in the doldrums, employees being laid off left, right and center, and personal and corporate bankruptcies on the up and up, insecurity is drawing ever more readers to these books with their catchy titles.

Well, perhaps. But other factors may be at play here, too.

For one, it is becoming increasingly clear that Japan’s formerly sacrosanct employment system — which saw firms hiring new university graduates and providing them with in-house training on the assumption they would work for them until they retired — is on a slippery slope toward collapse.

That aspect of corporate culture, developed during Japan’s astonishing economic revival following World War II, has provided workers with almost total job security, generous fringe benefits and steadily increasing wages on the basis of their lifelong commitment to the company. As a result, millions of workers have often identified their own interests with those of their employer, and have duly geared their whole lifestyle to this premise.

For millions now, though, this no longer holds true — which leaves many people wondering just what their working future holds, and facing the need for an f-word they thought would never apply to them: flexibility.

Forced to rethink

This cuts both ways, affecting employees and employers alike, as headhunter Fumio Sato is well placed to observe.

“Company executives’ speeches at ceremonies welcoming new employees have changed recently,” says Sato, the managing director of Tokyo Executive Search Co. “Some now even openly say to new staff members, ‘Please don’t assume you are going to be working in this company all your life.’ “

Such statements would have been unheard of 30 years ago, or even 20 years ago.

Sato says this new flexibility is simply because companies have started to realize they can no longer take care of their new workers in the way they once did. Hence, they are beginning to urge them to think for themselves and chart career paths of their choosing rather than simply depend on “the company.” Though this development began to surface after the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, Sato says that mounting financial woes are now forcing more and more companies to rethink their employment practices.

Indeed, in a 1995 book titled “Shinjidai no Nihonteki Keiei (Japanese-style Management in the New Era),” the Nikkeiren association of business leaders (now merged with the Keidanren business group to form Nippon Keidanren [Japan Business Federation]) made the suggestion that companies should reevaluate their hiring practices to increase their proportion of temporary, contracted workers.

“In the 20th century, companies could lay out your career path for you, but in the 21st century you have to build it by yourself,” Sato says.

This new flexibility in employment is particularly evident in the rapidly rising number of “freeters” — part-time workers aged 15-34, or jobless people of the same age prepared to do part-time work. Freeter is a slang word derived from a combination of the English word “free” and arbeiter, the German word for “worker.”

Researcher Reiko Kosugi says it was first used in the late 1980s. “But at that time I never expected that so many young people, especially university graduates, would become freeters,” says Kosugi, an assistant research director at the Japan Institute of Labor, who has written several books on freeters.

In fact by 2001, according to the institute’s data, the total number of freeters had reached 2.06 million, or about 4 percent of the nation’s employees. Astonishingly, that figure is twice what it was 10 years before, and is still rising steadily.

“Freeters are the antithesis of the Japanese system of lifetime employment based on hiring new graduates,” Kosugi points out. “And their increasing number clearly indicates that companies have downsized their new graduate intakes and are re-examining their employment practices as a whole.”

Here, though, another new key factor may figure prominently, namely “quality of life” considerations once thought to be off the Japanese worker’s radar.

Many freeters — of whom those in their early 20s form the biggest age group — have work ethics totally different from those of their parents’ generation, Kosugi says. They typically place much more importance on what they want to do, with the result that many choose to stay freeters rather than take a full-time position doing something they may not especially like.

However, the rapidly rising number of such workers — with some people in their 40s and 50s choosing part-time jobs as well — is presenting additional challenges as Japan’s traditional work culture collapses, Kosugi says.

“We will have to deal with new problems in this society concerning employment practices, such as a narrowing wage gap between full-time and part-time workers,” she says. “But in a way, the increased freeter population may also help create new employment areas making use of their varied abilities that might not have been discovered in the conventional seniority system at big companies.”

This, though, is just one symptom of the changes in both the job market and people’s attitude to work now taking place against a backdrop of unemployment officially standing at 5.4 percent. A new trend toward job-switching is another.

When he left his “lifetime employment” with a major Tokyo department store six years ago, Yoichi Kajimura knew he was likely waving goodbye to the prospect of job security and a steadily rising salary. Though he didn’t hate his job, Kajimura, then a 32-year-old University of Tokyo graduate in charge of sales and management of the store’s tenants, as well as a large new book center, simply felt he wanted more out of his life.

In a sense, he explained, he had too much security and certainty for his liking, and wanted to find new challenges, and to be his own boss. Now a financial planner and a cafe owner in the Kojimachi district in central Tokyo, Kajimura says he doesn’t think it’s wise for anyone to entirely entrust their life to a company these days.

“The money I can get through my business is basically the same as I used to earn in the company six years ago,” he says. “But now I feel I am standing on my own feet.”

Of course, there have been many others who have switched jobs in the past; salarymen fed up being nameless big-company employees who jumped ship to chase their dream and start their own business by opening a bar, or whatever. But until recently such people were considered odd for deviating from the norm.

An accelerating trend

According to Sato, though, the people who are now switching jobs or starting their own businesses in ever-increasing numbers are different from their precursors both in terms of their number and their positive attitude. People in their 20s to mid-30s now regard switching jobs as a normal part of life, while — in what he sees as a significant recent change — many over-35s now also view job-hopping in a positive light, he says.

In addition, he says that structural changes which are expected to lead to more jobs in service industries and fewer in manufacturing will also accelerate the job-hopping trend. In fact a research council of the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry last year estimated that in the coming five years, about 19 million people — three out of 10 of the country’s employees — are likely to switch jobs.

“If employees typically identified themselves 100 percent with their company in the past, from now on many of them are only going to do so about 50 percent,” Sato says. “I don’t think Japan will change to a country where everybody takes changing companies for granted, but the practice will be considered more favorably as the numbers doing so grow.”

On another plane altogether, there’s now also growing evidence that with more people freeing themselves from conventional, loyalty-based attitudes to work, more Japanese are now looking even further afield and are considering working overseas.

Tomoko Hata, Tokyo branch manager and marketing director of PaHuma Asia Co., a personnel-placement company specializing in Asia, says that the number of people registering with her company has skyrocketed in the past five years.

“Before, it was mostly women who were looking for jobs abroad, but the recent trend is for more men to be registering with us,” she says. “One reason is that Japanese companies have recently been giving workers fewer opportunities to work abroad than they did before. As a result, many of these men are looking to try and build their careers themselves by quitting the company and going overseas.

“Working abroad independently was considered something unusual and unconventional in the past, but now it is not. For many people, it is just one of the alternatives they consider.”

Taking all this on board and gazing into his crystal ball to discern the future of work and life in Japan, Takuro Morinaga, a financial analyst with the UFJ Institute, is in no doubt that yet more major changes in the relations between companies and workers are bound to follow.

“For a long time, for salaried workers, their company was not just a working place, but an organization that played a role like that of a family,” Morinaga says. “If a staff member moved, the company helped them out. The company also arranged leisure opportunities such as drinking parties and company trips.”

That is generally no more, he says, and now is time for Japanese people to find meaningful lives for themselves outside of companies.

Whether it’s by freeting, self-employment, moonlighting at work they enjoy — or, who knows, even by company staffers demanding better working conditions with more holidays — there’s no doubt that Japan’s world of work is in flux. And, as it steams into uncharted territory, who can say what social and political consequences may follow.