Some years ago I worked for a language-teaching service that offered in-house classes for companies. One client was a major electronics manufacturer, and many of the students were trained engineers assigned to the sales division.

This human resources tactic always struck me as counter-productive, since those men (always men) possessed practical technical know-how that seemed to be wasted on eigyō (sales), but the longer I worked with them the more I grasped the logic, even if I never bought it. Rotating employees throughout the company by means of regular interdepartmental transfers engendered loyalty because they came to understand the workings of the organization, and not just the part they were ostensibly hired to serve.

Recently, I came across an explication of this practice in an article in the business magazine Diamond about nenkō joretsu, the seniority wage system that is central to Japan's storied lifetime-employment system. The magazine said that interdepartmental transfers provided employees with "experience," but only within a single company, because, in accordance with lifetime employment, employees were hired straight from university and expected to remain with the company until they retired. In other economies, "experience" is the measure by which a prospective employee is evaluated, and the wider and more varied that experience, the more money he or she can theoretically demand. In Japan, it's the opposite. When you leave a company and join another, regardless of your skills, you start back at the bottom of the salary pyramid, because in accordance with the seniority wage system your worth is pegged to how many years you have worked for the same employer.