Monday, 8 June 2015

Turning Japanese: Work and Economy

Panoramic city skyline from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

In this chapter we'll take a look at the economy, job hunting like a Tokyoite and how to survive working in Japan.

Chapter Three: Work and Economy

I know little about economics. 
Having said that, the fact that the price of a Pokka canned iced coffee had not changed in 20 years 
+ the unbelievably reasonable cost of eating out well 
+ the number of mainly Asian tourists towing their ridiculous shopping hauls 
= according to my math are telltale signs of a recession. 

As the world's largest creditor nation (massive problems with public debt started in the 1990s), Japan's economy is shrinking at an alarming rate. No surprise large amounts of tourists are arriving to take advantage of the weak yen - to bulk-buy top-quality, trustworthy 'Made in Japan' products (typically electronics like rice cookers) at a very reasonable price.

Most ladies know Shiseido is somewhat of a gold standard for luxury skincare and makeup. However in Japan, it's as plain Jane as Maybelline. So don't get too excited the first time you find Shiseido toiletries in your average hotel room (yes that was me - the hillbilly washing my face and taking one too many showers). Typical Shiseido 'brand shoppers' in Japan are tourists - to locals it's known for its high-end department stores, alongside other iconic chains like Mitsukoshi (until its closure in 2013, the Piccadilly branch served London's Japanese community for 34 years).

The parallel goods trading industry thrives on the feverish overseas demand for the finest Japanese skincare (particularly from nearby Asian countries) - since niche products or regional editions are only available for a limited time. Nevertheless, "Japan saves the best stuff for itself - its domestic markets are some of the least open to exports or foreign investment." said Fu-san, our tour guide.

The view across Tokyo Skytree, Japan's tallest structure. (Right) The golden gourd topped Asahi Beer Hall

Job hunting

Every April Tokyo's prime job hunting season 'Shukatsu' kicks off. Students are expected to plan their applications a year in advance. For high school or university graduates in their third or fourth academic year, finding the job is a notoriously stressful and laborious process - they'll go through rounds of applications and interviews during the year.

新卒一括採用 'Shinsotsu-Ikkatsu-Saiyō' is a controversial corporate employment practice which is unique in Japan. It literally means 'simultaneous mass recruitment of graduates'. Unfortunately in some 'dark companies' their offer in employment is followed by "weeding out of weak ones through horrible work conditions and stress."*

Entry-level jobs for graduates are scarce - it is extremely difficult for them to find a job at any other time of the year. For those who are initially unsuccessful, many choose to extend their studies (thus preserving the desirable 'pre-graduate' status) rather than joining the workforce.  

Switching jobs is heavily frowned upon. You only get one shot as a prime job hunting candidate or fresh graduate. "Research the company background well and choose carefully. If you change more than three times you are unlikely to ever find work later in life," Fu-san told me as-a-matter-of-factly. In return for housing benefits, pensions and job security, you are expected to offer 'lifelong loyalty' to the company and comply with Japanese management culture. This includes unpaid overtime, mandatory after-hours drinking parties ('nomikai'), standardised dress code, systematically working your way up and the pressure to not to take up your full quota of holidays/sick leave.

Fascinatingly, "leadership is not based on assertiveness or quick decision making but on the ability to create consensus, taking into account the needs of subordinates"**. The key to career success is to be seen as maintaining team harmony (known as 'wa'), sharing credit for group accomplishments rather than celebrating individualism. Young children are taught the importance of  team-building exercises and it's not uncommon to spot the odd early morning fitness assembly/fire drill/company song singalong outdoors, as I did peering over my Nihombashi (Tokyo's financial district) hotel balcony.

Japan's high suicide rate is a sad, sobering reminder of its sometimes punishing work ethic. The stress placed on students' to land that critical first (and possibly last) job, the mandatory extended unpaid work hours (this is also due to company downsizing and a diminishing, ageing workforce - see my post on Japan's 'Ageing Epidemic') There's even a term coined for death by overwork - 'Karōshi'.

Dontonbori canal, Osaka

Open All Hours

There's no question about Japan's 24/7 culture. In major cities many food and entertainment establishments are open 365 days a year. That's not including the convenience stores - Lawson, 7-11, Family Mart who will be your best friends if can't read local menus. Plus the ubiquitous vending machines selling canned coffee (my favourite Japanese innovation) will undeniably keep you energised throughout the night.

But let's say you have a job working here. How do you let off steam after your 12 hour shift? Relax, after-work socialising with colleagues or clients in casual bars (known as 'izakayas' - literally 'roofs with alcohol') is the norm. At Dōtonbori, Osaka's bursting foodie/nightlife district, besides amazingly affordable and delicious food - try the street stalls selling grilled octopus balls, you can go for all-you-can-drink (in one hour) for 1900 yen (that's less than £10). I'm not advocating that you should overdo it, obviously.

*Source: 'How to jobhunt like a Tokyoite', Grace Buchele Mineta, Time Out Tokyo 2015 Summer Issue
**Source: Wikipedia

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