It wasn’t until he turned 18 that Daisuke Kuse saw businessmen dressed in dapper suits up close and personal. Until then, Kuse — having spent all of his childhood surrounded by working-class families and friends in a small town in Kyoto Prefecture — had barely the foggiest idea of who they were.

“I only had this stereotypical image I picked up from watching TV shows where they were portrayed as apologizing profusely to their clients or wiping sweat off their foreheads with handkerchiefs or something,” Kuse, now 25, said.

“To me, they were borderline fictional.”

Luckily for him, an internship with an Osaka firm landed in his lap during his first year of college, introducing him to the stimulating world of Japan Inc., where he learned to dress for success, use computers and navigate the difficult world of speaking formal Japanese.

But the same leg-up appeared to elude many of his friends who opted to work straight out of high school — often at local construction sites or restaurants — confining themselves to the closed community where they grew up.

It is this “opportunity gap,” as he calls it, that led Kuse to co-establish an unorthodox Tokyo-based startup in 2016. His goal: Eradicate this divide.

Kuse named his firm Hassyadai, a play on the Japanese word for “rocket launchpad,” in the hope that his company could aid people like his friends who didn’t make it to college, helping catapult them into a job market traditionally dominated by candidates with a university education.

“In this age of (Japan’s) shrinking population, I hear lots of employers say they struggle to find new recruits,” Kuse said. “The thing is, though, there are many more young people out there than they realize. They just can’t find them because they only look for candidates with college degrees.”

Many employers, he said, deem university-level education as a minimum requirement, based on the false assumption that nearly all young adults today are college grads. Education ministry statistics, however, show that just 54.7 percent of high school graduates advanced to higher education in fiscal 2018.

“What we do is let employers know that there are plenty of other young people out there,” he said. “So we’re basically striving to create a new human resources market that connects non-college graduates with employers.”

In an attempt to meet this objective, Hassyadai Inc. in 2016 rolled out a unique initiative dubbed the “yankee internship,” a phrase that employs the Japanese slang yankī, which is typically used to refer to teenage delinquents.

The idea is to help people from rural areas who don’t have a college degree — a demographic largely overlooked in today’s job market — make forays into Tokyo for free to learn skills that could help mold them into promising businesspeople.

As a part of the program, interns are assigned classes to become familiar with, among other things, the basics of salesmanship, marketing knowledge, English conversation and computer engineering. They also attend lectures by entrepreneurs and corporate managers.

Because many simply can’t afford these trips to the capital, the internships are financed by Hassyadai, which covers accommodations and meal expenses for the entirety of their monthslong experience. At the end of the internship, successful candidates go to work at a variety of white-collar companies Hassyadai partners with, including as sales workers, IT professionals and financial consultants.

The startup boasts that out of about 300 people who have completed the program, most have nailed down a job as a result.

Applicants come from diverse backgrounds, including some who worked as blue-collar laborers or were in civil service with “staid” jobs, as well as hikikomori shut-ins, according to Soichiro Miura, a Hassyadai representative who oversees the internship initiative.

“But one thing they have in common is the motivation to change themselves and their lives,” he said.

This spirit is evident in Hassyadai’s corporate motto — “Choose your life” — which is painted on the wall in its cafe-style office in Harajuku, a hub of Japanese youth culture.

The reference to “yankee” in the initiative derives from Kuse’s own past as a juvenile delinquent, a time he said was rife with truancy, gambling and a series of silly escapades that sometimes landed him in trouble with the authorities.

But unlike many of his friends, Kuse, on the advice of a teacher he met in high school, studied his way into a local university in April 2011. His encounter there with a new network of friends eventually helped him land the life-altering internship opportunity in neighboring Osaka Prefecture, which awakened him to his potential as a savvy businessman — something that had not even crossed his mind when he was in Kyoto.

“I grew up in a fatherless family raised by my nurse mother. My two sisters worked as a hairdresser and a restaurant employee before marrying. Not to mention, all my friends around me either worked in the construction or restaurant businesses and so did their parents,” Kuse said of his upbringing, and the lack of any stereotypical salarymen in his life.

He considers himself lucky because he was able to find his way out of the neighborhood he grew up in by going away to college, where his worldview and connections broadened like never before.

But in Japan, where there is no established culture of a gap year popular in some Western countries, “it’s often the case that the only way you can get out of your hometown is to advance to university. If you opt for employment straight after high school, the workplace is often within your own area,” he said.

Many of Kuse’s friends who didn’t go to college, for example, stayed in their hometown and took jobs like scaffold construction, remaining utterly disconnected from the world beyond their own small, tight-knit community, he said.

To rectify the situation, Hassyadai recently launched a new project called “travel intern,” where eligible candidates between the ages of 18 and 24 can “migrate” for free to prominent resort towns nationwide to work in local industries there, providing these young people with some semblance of a sabbatical year.

At the crux of Hassyadai’s activity, Kuse said, is the frustration that in Japan there is a significant portion of youth potential left untapped, despite the demographic crisis gnawing at the economy.

“In graying Japan, young people are becoming more and more of a minority. In other words, they are valuable just for being young, but there are some of them who remain significantly underutilized,” Kuse said.

In the job market of today, which he said fetishizes candidates’ academic backgrounds, these individuals simply fall through the cracks.

“We have to do something about this,” he said.

That those without college education are underutilized is evident in the way high school students seeking employment before graduation are effectively banned from freely hunting for jobs that match their career aspirations, Kuse said.

In principle, high school graduates today are allowed to apply for a job at just one employer at a time, as opposed to university graduates, who are free to approach as many prospective employers as they wish.

Originally introduced to minimize the impact on students’ schoolwork, the long-standing “one student for one company” system makes it easier for students to get accepted by the one company where they apply. But it has also long been criticized for limiting the right to one’s choice of employment as defined by the Constitution.

In Tokyo, for example, high school students looking for jobs are required to whittle their applications down to one from the get-go. Only after a certain period are they allowed to approach two additional employers, often in the unlikely event they are rejected by their first choice.

Critics say the system, which essentially denies students a chance to weigh their first-choice employer against other options in advance, leaves many demoralized after they are hired, and tends to translate into a relatively high turnover rate.

The latest labor ministry statistics highlight this trend, showing that 39.3 percent of new recruits who graduated from high school in March 2015 quit their jobs within the first three years. This compares with 31.8 percent of recruits with a college degree.

At the moment, “there is no decent job market for them,” Kuse said.

“The only reason university students are the center of recruiters’ attention is because there is an established market for them — a market fattened by human resource services that connect them with employers,” Kuse said. “Non-college graduates, I think, could be on the same level if only there were a similar market for them.”

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews profiling people in various fields taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society.

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