Job hunting in Japan

I recently started working at a large Japanese company as a regular employee. While I have virtually no job experience from any other countries to compare with, I feel quite certain that a large number of aspects of working in big Japanese corporations are not to be found many other places on earth, especially not in Western countries. Considering how common this kind of job is here in Japan (with its 126 million first-world citizens) however, I thought it fitting to share some of my experiences. In this post, I will describe the process of actually finding a job in Japan. First, a little background.

Large Japanese companies

Although consisting of a relatively small landmass, about the same size of Norway, Japan’s population density is closer to that of Belgium, its population much larger than any country in Europe. Its economy is the third largest in the world (the second largest until surpassed by China in 2010). A number of huge companies employ a sizable part of the population, but they exert an even larger influence and control over the economy.

Japan's location in the world.

Japan’s location in the world.

This influence has been even stronger in the past. Many Japanese companies can trace their roots back to the time around the Meiji Restoration (明治維新 meiji ishin)  or earlier, when Japan in 1868 appeared on the global stage after 250 years of near complete isolation and official discouragement of advances in technology and production. Many former samurais of the disbanded feudal system, a well-educated class, used the final lump-payment of their pension to start businesses in various industries, many of which flourished in the fresh market, together with the businesses which had held monopolies for centuries. The Meiji government invested huge amounts in heavy industries, which led to a strong relationship between the corporate and the political world, a relationship which continues to this day.

Iwasaki Koyata (岩崎 小弥太, 1879-1945), the 4th leader of the Mitsubishi zaibatsu, and his family. The zaibatsu has its roots in the time of the Meiji Restoration. Even today the Mitsubishi Group employs 350.000 people in everything from shipbuilding to telecommunications.

Iwasaki Koyata (岩崎 小弥太, 1879-1945), the 4th leader of the Mitsubishi zaibatsu, and his family. The zaibatsu has its roots in the time of the Meiji Restoration. Even today the Mitsubishi Group employs 350.000 people in everything from shipbuilding to telecommunications.

Relationships of this kind tend to favour large companies with vast resources. Indeed, in Japan four enormous zaibatsu (財閥), conglomerations of companies, appeared in the late 19th and early 20th century: Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Yasuda and Mitsui, together with many other smaller zaibatsu. These groups consisted of companies in all key industries, including banking, and were therefore self-sufficient in raw-materials and funding. They were attempted disassembled after the Second World War, but partially reappeared as keiretsu (系列), less closely knit versions of the zaibatsu, in the second half of the 20th century, a period when the Japanese economy reappeared from the devastations of war to become one of the largest in the world in the course of a few decades. This unprecedented growth was stunted when the bubble popped in the 1990s, which has left Japan with a stagnated economy ever since. This further weakened the keiretsu, their power today not comparable to the zaibatsu of pre-war Japan. Many of the large companies of old still exist, however, and although undoubtedly set to change if they are to survive in the new economic environment, much of their peculiar culture still has a strong presence.

The hiring process

Hiring new employees in Japan differs greatly from the process in Western countries.

In general, there are two different ways to be hired for full-time employment, with two distinct processes. One way is new graduate employment (新卒雇用 shinsotsu koyou), for students who are soon to graduate, and the other way is for everyone else. To put it in simple terms, if you want a normal job you’ll want to be in the first category.

The standard way to get hired is to start job hunting (就職活動, shuushoku katsudou) when you are in your last year of education, or earlier. For undergraduate students in universities, this is normally their fourth year. If you are lucky, you will find a company that agrees to hire you the moment you graduate. If you do not, chances are you will opt to stay another year at university, pay for another full year of expensive education without actually taking any courses (because you already have enough credits to graduate), for the express purpose of staying in the new graduate employment process. This is how badly people want to not end up in the second category. You can become a fifth year student (五年生 gonensei), and even a sixth year student (六年生 rokunensei), and still stay in the standard process, but if nobody has hired you by then, potential employers will likely assume there is a good reason for it, and your chances plunge.

If you decide to graduate university without having found a job, you are no longer eligible for the standard process, and will have to apply through the graduate employment (既卒雇用 kisotsu koyou) process. By now you might as well take a year or two off to move to Wien and practice ballet, because your job interviewers in Japan will want to know why in the world you don’t have a proper job already, and you should have a good excuse for this. If you do not, your chances of getting a good job are minuscule, and it may be hard to find one at all. Changing occupations (転職 tenshoku) also falls into this category, and can be a challenge. Partly because of strict labour laws and partly because of culture, fluidity in the Japanese labour market has traditionally been very small; employees are expected to stay in their jobs for a long time, preferably their whole life (終身雇用 shuushin koyou, permanent employment). Moving to a different company to improve your career is accepted to a certain degree, but if you were fired from your old job, finding a new one can be extremely tough (then again, labour laws makes it very hard to fire employees against their will in the first place). Your only option may be to take a part-time job (アルバイト arubaito, from German Arbeit), which is often in practice a full-time job with lower per-hour pay, no insurance or benefits, and no job security.

Most students (well over 90% ), however, do manage to find a job the first way, and for them the process is very streamlined, if physically and mentally exhausting. Students start looking for companies which they find interesting or where they can expect a high salary. When they find one, they send them an entry sheet containing their basic personal information and why they are interested in the company. Notice that they do not apply for a specific position in the company, but for the company itself; although some companies allow the applicant to choose one of two-three “sections” within the company, typically divided between those who studied humanities (文系 bunkei) and those who studied the sciences (理系 rikei) in university. Students commonly send entry sheets to tens of companies to keep their options open, but eventually narrow their scope to 3-5 companies which they will focus on. Since many companies, especially the traditional ones, expect the entry sheets to be hand-written, this provides many hours of tedious night-time labour for the applicants.

A sample entry sheet. Below the personal information, there are questions such as "What was your research subject in university?" and "Is there anything you feel you won't lose to anyone in?".

A sample entry sheet. Below the personal information, there are questions such as “What was your research subject in university?” and “Is there anything you feel you won’t lose to anyone in?”.

Applicants listening to a company presentation session at a job fair.

Applicants listening to a company presentation session at a job fair.

The next step is to attend the company’s presentation session (説明会 setsumeikai, explanatory meeting) to hear about what the company does, how many graduates they hired last year and how high their salary is now. These sessions can take place in the company’s offices, or in front of the booths in one of the big job fairs, where tens, or even hundreds, of companies try to attract students to apply for them (The Tokyo Summer Career Forum, for instance, has more than 200 participating companies each year). In either case, the dress code is strict: black suit and tie for the boys, and a black jacket and black skirt for the girls (both with a white shirt underneath). While slight variations on this might be acceptable (a dark grey suit for example), most attendants buy a standard job hunting suit specifically for the purpose.

A job fair in Makuhari, Chiba, outside Tokyo in 2011.

A job fair in Makuhari, Chiba, outside Tokyo in 2011.

In the first phase of interviewing applicants are numerous. This is one reason for holding group interviews.

In the first phase of interviewing applicants are numerous. This is one reason for holding group interviews.

Usually, the presentation sessions are accompanied by a test of some kind, commonly an aptitude examination (適性検査 tekisei kensa), which include questions about math, language and logic, and aim to assess the general aptitude of the applicant. The most common standardized aptitude examination is the SPI, and there are a myriad of books with strategies and example questions to help applicants prepare for these tests. Other tests include writing down your motives for applying to the company (even if already included in the entry sheet), or more hands-on tests, like figuring out the answer to a problem in a group where everyone has different pieces of information. A friend of mine who was at a company’s headquarters taking a test was placed in front of a telephone, and was suddenly asked questions in English from the person on the other end. (My friend, who did not understand a word, panicked and immediately put down the receiver, giving up on the company.)

A naiteisho, proof of the applicant having been accepted to the company.

A naiteisho, proof of the applicant having been accepted to the company.

Based on the information in the entry sheets (especially the box titled “Name of university”) and the results of the tests, some of the applicants are later invited to attend the first interview (一次面接 ichiji mensetsu), which is often a group interview with several applicants. A portion of these are later invited to the second interview (二次面接 niji mensetsu). This can go on for a few more rounds, until a select few attend the final interview (最終面接 saishuu mensetsu). A few days to a few weeks after this, the lucky ones receive a naitei (内定 unofficial decision), basically a promise to the applicant that he can come to work for the company the next spring. Many universities have agreements with certain companies, so that students receiving a recommendation (推薦 suisen) from their professor can skip the whole process until the final interview, and are guaranteed a job there.

Most Japanese companies only hire new employees once a year: on April 1st, the start of the fiscal year. Even if the applicant has nothing else to do until that date, she often has no choice but to wait. Many smaller companies are less strict with this as with many other things than the big companies. The big companies, however, are lately also striving to become more flexible, and many have extended their hiring period – to twice a year, adding October 1st (autumn hiring (秋採用 aki saiyou)). Since the vast majority of applicants are still in university and graduate in February/March, however, April 1st remains by far the most common date to enter a company, and for the large companies the results are huge groups of employees entering at the same time: Hitachi, for example hired 600 people in 2013, presumably most of them on April 1st.

Although the student is now guaranteed a job, it might not be with the company she was most interested in, and so an ambitious applicant may ask if she can wait a short while before accepting the naitei. If she is to receive an answer from a more attractive company shortly, she can wait for that result before accepting the first company. If not, she can play the dangerous game of declining the first naitei, hoping to get a better naitei later in the year. If she fails this, she risks having to start the process all over again next year, including moving graduation yet another year forward in time, as discussed above.

If the applicant accepts the naitei and attends the naitei ceremony (内定式 naitei shiki), she can spend the rest of the year relaxing and going out drinking with her friends, because she likely has few or even no classes at university. Most university course plans have all obligatory subjects during the first three years, so students can focus their time on job hunting outside of university – while paying the same tuition fee, of course. Every step in the process above is typically preceded by hours of preparation, and repeated for several companies. When counting in the fact that the applicant’s success or failure in this particular year of their life can decide how their entire future will unfold, the resulting physical and mental stress is overwhelming for many.

Hundreds of students gathered to celebrate them being accepted into their company, to start working next spring.

Hundreds of students gathered to celebrate them being accepted into their company, to start working next spring.

Of course, a young Japanese graduate’s life is not over if she fails to gain a job through the strict route described above. There are foreign companies (外資系 gaishikei), there are small companies and fringe industries who are not strict with the hiring process, some part-time jobs are really not that bad, and she could even start her own business. But the fact remains that the vast majority of Japanese are employed through a variation of the process as outlined in this post, and failure to abide by its strict rules will quickly lead to being permanently removed from it. On the other hand, once you do get your hands on a naiteisho, you are set for life.

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