Tomoko Noguchi, 22, got her first bar hostess job about three years ago, while studying to become an aesthetician at a vocational school.
Dressed in a suit and with her long hair curled, she served drinks part-time at a bar in Ueno, Tokyo.
Despite landing a full-time job at a major aesthetic salon after she graduated from her two-year course, however, Noguchi quit the company within nine months.
“The job was different from what I had imagined,” she said. “I wanted to give beauty treatments to customers, but I had to do a lot of telephone marketing to lure people into buying products. Besides, the pay was low and I had few holidays.”
Most of the few holidays Noguchi did get were spent traveling around the country so she could help train other workers. She earned 160,000 yen a month.
Noguchi now works as a hostess in Shibuya and makes 2,600 yen per hour.
She is free to take any night off, can show up at work when she wants to, and gets paid on the spot after a night’s work.
Her monthly earnings total 400,000 yen, which she mostly spends on clothes, as well as nail and hair treatments.
“The freedom to work any time I want to, and to spend money in any way I please . . . that is the biggest difference from the days when I had the full-time job.”
Noguchi is one of a growing number of young Japanese who have turned their backs on traditional full-time corporate careers, choosing instead to drift from one temporary job to another.
People in this category are known as “freeters,” a term coined from the English word “free” and the German word “arbeiter,” or worker.
According to an employment white paper released in 2000 by the then Labor Ministry, the number of freeters aged between 15 and 34 jumped from 500,000 in 1982 to 1.01 million in 1992 and then to 1.51 million in 1997. The latter is the latest figure available.
Experts estimate that this figure has risen further since then and is approaching the 2 million mark.
This is partly due to the increasingly troubled job situation in Japan, with the unemployment rate having reached a record-high 5.6 percent as of December.
About 60 percent of the nation’s freeters work in the services industry, employed as convenience store clerks, waitresses and the like.
More than a third of them are high school graduates.
While the freeters in question all have different reasons behind their career choices, the sheer number opting to pursue or being forced into lifestyles based on this model is a source of alarm for the government.
Most of the jobs in the freeter category are simple, low-skill, low-paid affairs, carrying little prospect of promotion or skill-development opportunities.
This in turn begs the question of what Japan will do with its growing legion of freeters when they become 40-year-olds incapable of supporting the economy.
Not a new concept
The freeter concept is not a new one.
The word was coined in 1987, in the midst of the asset-inflated bubble economy.
It was used to describe people who, despite ample full-time job opportunities, opted to take part-time jobs because they wanted to pursue their dreams — of becoming pop stars or actors perhaps — and did not want to be tied down by their employers.
The recent surge in the number of freeters can be attributed to a plethora of factors.
While the nation’s overall unemployment rate is bad enough, the jobless rate for people aged between 15 and 24, which stood at 8.1 percent as of December, is the worst among all the age brackets.
In the days of lifetime employment, which went hand in hand with Japan’s high economic growth through the 1970s, companies spent years training young workers, teaching them basic etiquette procedures such as how to answer the phone properly.
Employers also provided workers with opportunities to learn job-related skills from scratch.
But the economy has suffered considerably amid the recessions of the past decade and is currently going through a myriad of structural changes.
Companies are downsizing their workforces and reviewing their seniority-based pay structures, so that employees are no longer rewarded for mere longevity.
“Japan used to have such a unique employment practice in the postwar period that young people had no worries about their future once they got full-time jobs after graduation,” remarked Reiko Kosugi, a senior researcher for the Japan Institute of Labor, a think tank affiliated with the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
“That has changed.”
Masakazu Kusunoki, 28, is a returnee from the United States who was educated in a bilingual college environment.
Kusunoki started working for a Tokyo-based real estate agent specializing in luxury apartments for the wealthy foreign community in April 1998.
He quit his job after two months, however, after becoming disillusioned with the lack of opportunities to use his English skills and growing weary of what he describes as “mudslinging” and “back-stabbing” by coworkers.
Kusunoki also quit his second full-time job in June 2000 due to personality conflicts with his coworkers. Having earned very little money last year, he now aspires to work as an independent translator from home — or rather, his parents’ home.
“My friends are sticking to the jobs they took right out of school, but they haven’t made much progress in their careers,” he said, adding that one who works for a major bank has suffered pay cuts while another, who works for a major retailer, has not been assigned to his preferred position as a buyer.
“I admire their patience, but I can’t be like them. I would rather bet on an opportunity to make it big as a translator, who, if successful, can make as much as 10 million yen a year.”
Other freeters are not as ambitious.
Tetsuo Kageta, 23, who aspires to be a professional singer, has two part-time jobs — one at a music shop in Shibuya and another at a telecommunications company in Okubo.
He maintains, however, that while he likes music and wants to be involved in the music industry, making it big as a rock star is not his ultimate lifetime goal.
“I don’t need a glorious career,” Kageta said. “I would like to make my living by doing something related to music . . . but I want to enjoy the process toward achieving my goal, and enjoy my life today.”
His parents, who live in Yamaguchi Prefecture, disapprove of his lifestyle and want him to get a full-time job.
“But that’s like the most difficult thing for me,” said Kageta, who earned a degree in physical education from Chukyo University in Aichi Prefecture but has not looked for work in that field.
Takashi Furukawa, an editor at Gakken Co., a Tokyo-based educational services company, laments the apparent vacuum of motivation among Japan’s current crop of young people.
Many can do without full-time jobs because, in many cases, they live with their parents and therefore enjoy free room and board.
They often do not pay health insurance premiums either, because they are covered by their working parents as family members.
Furukawa goes on to say that, when the term freeter was coined by the editor of a part-time job magazine in 1987, it referred to young people who were making ends meet with odd jobs but had a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve in life.
These days, however, the freeter model has changed, according to Furukawa.
“Their true feelings are hard to know for us,” he said.
“But their ‘dreams’ seem to be a convenient excuse (for not choosing a real job). They talk about dreams, but they are not taking necessary action to achieve them.”
‘Voluntary’ exit misnomer
Other experts meanwhile maintain that government statistics suggesting most young people quit their jobs “voluntarily” are misleading.
Yuji Genda, professor of economics at Gakushuin University, said young people are victims of corporations shedding new recruits to protect the jobs of their middle-aged and senior employees.
“Adults blame the young for quitting jobs easily,” Genda said.
“But the truth is, young people are changing jobs because the recession makes it impossible for them to find good jobs right out of school.”
JIL’s Kosugi said the government should devise measures to ensure that those who have fallen off traditional career paths can still acquire job-related skills.
With high school graduates and dropouts more likely to become freeters than those with advanced degrees, high school education should also be revised to help students plan careers, Kosugi said.
Some initiatives have been launched to help young people in this context.
The labor ministry opened four new job-placement offices nationwide this year, exclusively targeting those under 30. One such office in Shibuya, which opened in late November, has proved to be so popular, attracting around 330 visitors per day, that it recently expanded its office space so that more computers can be installed.
The office is also equipped with 479 explanatory videos on various professions, ranging from beauticians to public relations officials.
Visitors can view any vocational video of their choice, or can tap into a computer program designed to assess their vocational aptitudes.
“A majority of freeters want to settle (on full-time jobs) if they can, but are not in a hurry to find ones,” said Akira Kani, a center official.
“We would like such people to come and visit us casually, on their trip to Tower Records across the street or on any occasion, because such a step can provide them with the motivation to make the next move.”