In mid-May, NHK’s nightly news feature “Closeup Gendai” looked at the current post-university recruitment situation from the viewpoint of the recruit. For the past decade, the main story with regard to this issue has been the difficulty of finding work as more and more companies restructured along nontraditional lines. But the program revealed a different aspect of the job-search dilemma.

College students, it turns out, have little idea of what they want to do. This was never a problem in the past, when companies hired graduates regardless of their field of study and then just trained them for various positions. Companies now demand that potential employees express “firm purpose” during interviews. Students who come across as being uncertain about what they want to do aren’t asked back for followup interviews.

According to the program, a lot of students just give up looking for jobs because they have no idea what they want to do. The corporate world’s demand for personal initiative gives rise to paralyzing indecision among them. On a questionnaire given out during a job-search seminar one student left blank most of the amorphous questions (“What is your dream?” etc. ), but in the space reserved for comments wrote, “Why do we have to work?”

At the center of this confusion is the lingering belief that careers for university graduates are about companies, not occupations. Magazines reinforce this tradition with a seasonal habit of publishing lists of the most desirable corporations among college graduates. This idea is obviously instilled over time, since elementary school children, when asked the age-old question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” , never say, “I want to work for Hitachi.”

Parents say they want their children to become komuin (public officials) or salaried employees, because those positions connote stability. But Japan’s changing economic landscape is forcing future job-seekers to think not about what they will “become” but what they will “do.”

It is this reality that has pushed Ryu Murakami’s new book, “Ju-san-sai no Hello Work,” to the top of the best-seller list. “Hello Work” is the breezily misleading name applied to public job-search offices in Japan, and the book ostensibly explains the job market to 13-year-olds. However, according to a review of the book in the Asahi Shimbun, it is assumed that most of the 1 million copies sold so far have been bought by adults, which is understandable given the hefty list price (2,600 yen) and the fact that it’s not in manga form.

Murakami is one of Japan’s most popular and influential novelists. His books, which are filled with sex, violence and drugs, have given him the aura of an iconoclastic dandy, a reputation he cultivated in the ’80s and ’90s as a flamboyant and self-centered media intellectual. In 1999, however, he used his celebrity to launch a serious Internet magazine dedicated to Japan’s economic problems.

In the introduction to the book, Murakami says that he was always getting into trouble at school, where teachers constantly accused him of “destroying classroom harmony.” He says his adolescent rebelliousness was caused by adults who constantly squelched his curiosity. Children, he says, are naturally curious, but that curiosity tends to be stifled by the educational system.

The book is an attempt to help children nurture their curiosity and explore their interests. He admits that the idea came from his own experience because writing novels, he found, perfectly suited his personality, and thus “was fulfilling.”

The format is so simple even parents can understand it. More than 500 different occupations are categorized according to what a child “likes.” These range from the concrete (sports, science, crafts) to the abstract (helping people, playing games, collecting things), and even go as far as interests that many parents would be loath to encourage, like war, weapons, and sex.

In this latter case, it may seem that Murakami’s iconoclasm is getting the better of him. However, the point of the book is not, as he points out, to “recommend jobs,” but rather to show what’s out there. In the section about sex, for instance, he explains that some people go into the sex trade and “sell their bodies.” He does not condemn this, but simply mentions there are “risks and dangers,” and that, in the end, “it is difficult to feel fulfilled” in such work. He also suggests that people who are conflicted about sex (a good description of adolescence) can work out their conflicts by becoming counselors or psychiatrists.

As merchandise, the book takes advantage of parents’ anxieties about their children’s futures, but that doesn’t diminish its value as a social document. It acknowledges that “the days when graduating from a good school guaranteed entry into a good company” are gone, and asserts that this is neither good nor bad, but natural.

The problem with seeking a job in an industry you want to work for, at least in Japan, is that it’s easy to be exploited. Many students, for instance, say they want to work in the media, which is notorious for long hours and no extra pay. Employers get away with it because they know young people will do anything to work for them. The Japanese government has targeted anime as a growth industry, but entry-level animators, another dream occupation, can’t make enough money to live on their own, and often have to quit the business somewhere down the line just to survive.

Let’s hope that by the time Murakami’s present 13-year-olds are mature enough to enter the job market, the job market is mature enough for them.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.