When it comes to job hunting in Japan, there is something called a “naitei,” an informal promise of employment given to students who pass the applicant screening, written tests and mind-crunching interviews.

Every year when the job hunting season comes around, students swap their T-shirts and flip-flops for dark-colored suits and dye their hair back to black, all in hopes of locking up a spot in an established company or recognized conglomerate.

But last August during the height of the crazy season, Atsushi Honma, 22, decided not to choose a job or a career. Instead he chose to question the recruiting system, which had left him feeling empty.

“I was rejected by 20 companies without being told why. And I’d had enough,” Honma, a senior majoring in economics at Kanagawa University, told The Japan Times last week.

Despite being weeks away from becoming a full-fledged NEET (people not involved in employment, education or training), he said there were no regrets over his bold decision.

“It might have been easier to go with the flow,” Honma said, but he quickly added he “was fed up with learning how many degrees one should bend over when bowing to give a good impression during an interview.”

Honma’s hunt for a job kicked off in October of his junior year, first by attending recruiting events organized by companies. The initial process included creating an account on major recruitment websites such as Recruit Co.’s Rikunabi and Mainichi Communication Inc.’s Mainavi, in order to send application forms to firms.

After that, his day as a job seeker was typical for most of the other 400,000 grads-to-be frantic to secure a company position. If he was lucky, a company would call him to schedule a written exam; Honma got a few of those and moved on to the second stage.

But he never got past the final interview, and he wasn’t alone in tasting defeat.

According to the latest government data, only 68.8 percent of grads-to-be had won that informal promise of a job as of Dec. 1. It was the lowest number since officials began collecting comparable data in 1996.

The education ministry also revealed recently there are approximately 87,000 university students graduating in March whose futures are still up in the air.

“Some days I had two interviews,” Honma said of better times. But on others, he’d spend time reading the papers and flipping through how-to books on giving a good impression in oral exams.

A 15-degree bow was recommended when meeting an interviewer in the hall and a 30-degree bow when entering the interview room. In wrapping up the interview, add 15 more degrees so one’s back is parallel with the floor, most books said.

In addition to the idiosyncratic customs, Honma said his colleagues who reside far from Tokyo were having to endure long trips to attend recruiting events in the capital.

Keeping a part-time job grew difficult for many students — job interviews would be offered randomly — making it impossible for his friends to make ends meet.

Some even began experiencing depression after being turned down by numerous companies.

“Imagine being rejected by 100 companies, without explanation. It takes a toll on you,” Honma said.

Calling the practice nonsense and blaming the system could be considered youthful indiscretion, but Honma took it a step further after dropping out of the race in August.

He tried to do something about it.

Gathering a group of like-minded students, they sat down to study what is being called a “hyougaki,” or “ice age,” when new graduates have a particularly hard time landing a position and how the government needs to play a role during economic slumps to help those who are struggling.

“There is definitely a structural problem that needs to be addressed, and the government must take the initiative,” Honma said. One issue he highlights is the unified process where companies focus too much on hiring new graduates and recruiting them straight from university.

“This is absurd because it only provides us with one chance at the job market. Once we have graduated, it’s the end,” he said.

The corporate sector has been slow to respond to such voices.

Some major companies, including Mizuho Bank Ltd., have revealed plans to abolish their infatuation with fresh grads and treat everyone three years or less out of college the same. Takashimaya Co. and Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co. said they will follow suit, but the move hasn’t exactly become a trend.

Tomomasa Kato, who has joined Honma’s initiative, warns that recruiters should consider this a time for change if they really want to hire the best. Picking new hires straight out of universities has many shortcomings for employers as well, he said.

“While the senior year is the peak time for students to do their job interviews, it is also the most important period, as it was for me, to complete their research and studies.”

Kato is studying neurology as a graduate student at the University of Tokyo, and unlike Honma he has bagged a naitei. But he feels a responsibility to take action against the recruiting system after having survived the gruesome process.

“Truth be told, my research lab was empty when it was supposed to be the busy season, because many prioritized their job hunting over their studies. There’s something wrong with that scene.”

The negative effect of the recruiting cycle, which kicks off while students are still in their junior year, goes beyond research labs. For example, pundits say the early start is one factor more undergraduates are forgoing studies abroad.

Despite some companies like Rakuten Inc. adopting English as their official language with an eye on the global market, bogging students down with the job hunt and robbing them of their chance to study overseas runs counter to this trend, experts say.

To address this, the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), the country’s largest business lobby, called on its members earlier this month to delay their recruiting process for about two months to provide sufficient study time for university seniors.

While many companies begin holding seminars for job seekers in October, Keidanren recommended they wait until December.

But the proposal isn’t binding, and not every company is a member of the business group to begin with.

Companies also worry that rival firms may sneak around and hold seminars before the agreed date so they can secure the best candidates. Some observers also doubt a two-month postponement will do all that much to alleviate the burden on students.

“In the end, those who cut classes and attend interviews are the ones who are offered jobs. To put it in another way, companies are ending up with new grads who put aside their studies,” Kato said.

Honma and Kato were key organizers of rallies last year in Tokyo to raise awareness of the issue. In addition, their group summarized the system’s problems they’ve seen firsthand and turned it in as a list of requests to the ruling Democratic Party of Japan on Jan. 18.

DPJ Upper House member Saori Yoshikawa, who said she had to survive an “ice age” herself to get a job as a new graduate, exchanged opinions with Honma.

“I had to write more than 300 letters when I was looking for a job as a grad-to-be. The fact I was a female student with a degree in literature didn’t help, either,” she said.

Yoshikawa, 34, is known for her expertise in the field of employment and labor among the younger generation.

She said a high jobless rate among the new grads will ultimately tear down the nation’s social welfare net and pension system. But it is hard for veteran lawmakers, who have only witnessed the rise of Japan’s economy and an ever-expanding job market, to grasp how complicated the situation has become for students, she added.

“This is a structural problem that needs to be fixed, and I plan to continue working on it,” Yoshikawa assured the group of students.

Spending his job-seeking days questioning the recruiting process and getting to meet lawmakers like Yoshikawa, Honma may have found, in an ironic twist, one thing he could see himself making a career out of.

“Entering the world of politics has definitely appealed to me,” he said after meeting Yoshikawa and discussing how the government should operate.

“In fact, I can’t wait till I turn 25” and become eligible for elected office.

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