Jobs and traditional Japanese business culture

I have heard before that traditionally in Japan, that when you take a job, you’re basically signing on to that company for life. If you try to leave it and get another job, no one would hire you anyway because you show a lack of loyalty. I’m not sure if that is accurate or an exaggerated version of reality. But I was wondering, what would happen if your company went out of business? Could you get a new job without any loss in your market value or any other social/business-related penalizations against you?

People change jobs. People get fired. People get layed off. Just a few months ago an employee left his position at his job and joined our office in Japan, after a couple of months he found the work at our company displeasing or unsuitable(don’t know the reason) and found yet another job. I think the “for life” thing is a more of a 80s thing that’s quickly dissipating.

The Japanese employer-employee relationship used to be a lifelong commitment, where the loyalty and hard work of an employee would be rewarded with lifetime job security. The security is no longer there, but many Japanese employers would still like to retain previous levels of employee commitment.

It is considered very rude to leave a company and go to work for a direct competitor, and the unwritten rule is that when an employee leaves a company, s(he) is not obliged to reveal their new employer, to save their potential embarassment.

A growing proportion of Japanese youth are rejecting the career culture altogether, and prefer to bum around with a succession of interchangeable McJobs.

Japan also has a homeless problem, and many of these homeless people were professionals who fell on hard times when the economy started its downturn years ago. They don’t beg, and some are too proud to claim benefit, preferring to live quietly under canvas in patches of wasteground, scraping a living collecting cans for recycling and suchlike. Those still with jobs look the other way, as illustrated by the dead homeless guy in Osaka, whose body lay in front of a major department store, and had people stepping over him for two months before someone saw fit as to enquire after his wellbeing.

Up until recently, switching jobs just wasn’t done in Japan if you were working at anything above a part-time McJob. Of course, this worked the other way, as well, with companies not firing workers unless they had a real major-league screwup, and even then they’d probably just get ‘transferred’ to some remote office out in the sticks. In addition to questioning the loyalty (or motives, if they’re hiding the real reason they left) of someone who left their old job, many companies also maintained the position that their ‘corporate culture’ was unique and vital to being a productive employee, and that someone who’d been trained in a different culture would simply never be able to fit in, so why bother? (basically, the same attitude of Japan in general toward foreigners, just on a smaller scale).

As for losing your job because your company went under, that’s trickier. I suppose job-seekers wouldn’t have faced the loyalty issues that they’d have if they quit (especially if their former company was big enough that prospective employers would know about it going out of business), but there would still be the ‘corporate culture’ problem. Their best bet would be to apply for jobs with companies that their old firm had contracts with: suppliers, distributors, clients, etc. They’d have contacts in those companies and would have a better chance of fitting in.

The belief in lifetime employment changed a lot in the 90’s when the economic bubble burst and lots of big, trusted names in Japan, Inc. started having to lay people off for the first time ever. The term ‘ristoraa’ (from “restructuring”) is now an everyday part of the language. Unfortunately for a lot of the people who got caught in that first wave of firing, the attitude against hiring people who’d worked at other companies took longer to change.

Nowadays, there’s still resistance to the idea of changing jobs as frequently as it may be done in the US (I can’t honestly say, my entire working life has been here), but things aren’t nearly as rigid as they used to be, especially for younger employees, and most especially within the software and internet business sector. A lot of new companies have sprung up to handle mid-career job placement, and even head-hunting, something that would have been unthinkable in Japan twenty years ago.

One sad point is that your chances of getting re-hired by a new company go way down as you get into your 40’s and 50’s. One effect this has had is in taxi service. After 11pm, the streets in Tokyo are almost solid taxis, and almost every driver is a man between 45 and 65. Whenever I’ve started a conversation with one, their story is always the same: they were office workers who got laid off, and ended up driving taxis because they couldn’t find another office job and this was the only other thing that had the skills for (one guy I met said he always tried to hang out near his old office in the hopes of picking up a former co-worker who could give him another chance).