A man I sometimes work with built a house in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, about 10 years ago when he was 30 years old. At the time he was working for one of Japan’s most prominent trading companies, and had been ever since he graduated from university. He chose Hiratsuka because it’s on the JR Tokaido line, which would take him straight to his office in Shinagawa. The commute was an hour each way. He was living the dream, Japan style.

Four years later his department was discontinued when his employer merged with another trading company. He was let go and eventually found work with a travel agency where he earns less money, thus making his mortgage payments more of a burden, a situation he describes as “loan hell.” Even worse, his commute now takes more than 90 minutes each way. He says he would like to sell his house and move his family into a rental property closer to his office, but there are no buyers. He’s stuck there.

This man blames the economy; in other words, forces beyond anyone’s control. But Japan’s economy started sliding before he bought his house, even before he started working for the trading company. He entered into home ownership with an optimistic attitude reinforced by an inflexible belief in a status quo that was already history. He had graduated from a name university and immediately found employment with a name company, which is how the system is supposed to work. By rights he would work for this company the rest of his life, so buying a house beyond his immediate means did not seem reckless.

This acceptance of an order that no longer applies persists among the current crop of university seniors. In their case, however, it informs their despair over not being able to find a “suitable” job by the time they graduate. If they don’t then they think their lives are effectively over even before they begin, owing to the entrenched practice of major companies hiring employees only from the ranks of new university graduates. In light of this despair, some companies are now saying they will expand their pool of potential new employees to include young people who graduated up to three years prior to a particular recruitment season, which takes a little pressure off recent graduates but nevertheless maintains a policy that makes no sense any more. Many of these companies openly admit that they already have too many employees.

A recent edition of NHK’s in-depth news series, “Closeup Gendai,” examined the plight of undergrads stuck in naitei (students promised jobs before they graduate) limbo. As of October, only 57.6 percent of next spring’s grads had secured employment, the lowest number ever. At an “explanation session” in Tokyo where companies met with hopeful students, the young people expressed their frustration to the NHK reporter. One complained that he had no idea what these companies wanted.

According to the rules of the game as it used to be played, major companies would hire new grads en masse and then sort and assign them after training. Almost 3 million people graduated from university in 2010, whereas only 1.85 million did so in 1985. In that year, 26.5 percent of all high- school grads went on to university. Now, the percentage is 54.5.

But the real problem is that over the years these companies have had to rethink their global strategies. They can no longer afford to cultivate new employees from the ground up. They need workers who are flexible and can start producing right away. Twenty years ago, they looked for malleability. Now they’re looking for initiative.

And that’s exactly what you didn’t see at the job fair. All the students were dressed identically in monochrome “recruit suits,” all the women sporting ponytails and wearing the exact same blocky pumps. This appearance, a stubborn holdover from the bubble era, simply reinforced the deathless stereotype of Japanese white collar workers as obedient drones. One English major who seemed incapable of looking anyone in the eye replied, “English, I think,” to an interviewer who asked what her strengths were. Afterwards, she told NHK that she had sent 100 applications to trading companies and information- related businesses and had received no replies. “If I don’t find work before I graduate, I’ll end up a freeter,” she said, using the term for a serial part-time worker, an existence she obviously felt was beneath her.

A young man who graduates in the spring and said he’s been looking for a position since fall 2009 expressed total perplexity at his lack of prospects. After all, he’s attending Waseda University, the alma mater of prime ministers and media giants. “I was over-confident,” he said, boldly owning up to reality, but then added that if he doesn’t find a job “with a major construction company or real-estate firm,” he’ll stay an extra year in university so that he can try again as a 2012 grad.

NHK didn’t have to comment on these students’ cluelessness. It simply rolled out statistics. There are twice as many applicants for positions with “big” companies as there are open positions with those companies, while at the same time there are twice as many open positions with small and medium-sized companies as there are applicants for those positions.

The program suggested that grads may actually find more security with these smaller companies, since many have greater potential for growth. But today’s college students are still stuck on the idea that they have to get jobs with name companies, not just because they’ve spent their entire lives working toward that goal by going to the “right schools,” but also because the media has taught them to “follow their dreams,” which means working for a big company, because they believe only big companies guarantee you a secure life until you die. My acquaintance, stuck in a big house he can’t afford in Hiratsuka, is proof that it’s a lie.

Phillip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com

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