The Start of Working Life in Japan
If you go to a four-year university in Japan, by the time your third year rolls around it is high time to start your job hunt. If you don’t do this, there is a chance that you will miss the boat and have a miserable time trying to find a job when almost all the ‘good jobs’ have already been taken by those who did start their search on time. There is not much room for error in Japan when it comes to something as important as the search for your first real job. How does this job search work? And what happens once you secured a coveted spot in one of Japan’s larger companies?
Job Searching in Japan
First of all, it is good to note that there is a huge difference in what a job search will look like between searching for your first job after you finish university, and searching for a job mid-career or later. It is also different to look for a non-office job, a part-time job, or a freelance job. The description below depicts the search for a permanent contract office job right after university, somewhat of a holy grail for many Japanese university students.
In Japan, there is a business association called ‘Keidanren‘ that counts most large companies as its members, and it is especially these large companies that young Japanese people want to work for. Reasons for this are that these companies pay good late-career salaries, offer a steady career progression, and employees will enjoy the relative certainty that they will not be fired easily, meaning you will have stability in your life and will have an easier time finding a marriage partner if you want a family. For this reason, the competition is fierce, and many will not be able to work for one of their desired companies. Businesses in Keidanren have an agreement to keep the competition for the best talent fair and to make competing easier for the students by adhering to a set schedule for the recruitment process.
The first step is that students send their CVs to the companies, it is good to note that some students send their resume to more than 100 companies in order to maximize their chances for one or even multiple offers at the end of the process. For getting your foot in the door, attending a prestigious university is one of the most important things that big companies will look at, meaning that high school students are under tremendous pressure to pass the entrance exams for this handful of good universities. Once you are in, your job hunting life will be considerably easier. Most students will then be invited for the company presentation, where sometimes hundreds of students can hear what life at that company would be like. The students who then want to proceed will first need to pass the paper test followed by at least one interview.
More competitive companies have more than one interview, as they don’t only want to speak to the prospective employees one on one, but they also want to see how someone holds their own in a group meaning that group interviews are also a common part of the interview process. You may be surprised to know that what most Japanese employers are looking for is not necessarily impressive skills or a personality that really stands out. They are more likely to want to hire those who show a humble personality who works well in groups and is still a ‘clean sheet’ that they can mold as to what the company needs. This is also why work experience is not necessary to land this type of job, and part-time jobs for students are less common than in many other countries. The work experience argument that is often used for students to get a part-time job besides their studies is not very valid in Japan.
Then the companies share their decisions with the prospective employees in the form of an informal offer letter. Some promising students get several informal offers, while others get none in spite of attending many interviews. The good news is that if they are 3rd-year students, they will get another shot one year later, but the pressure will definitely be on the second time around.
Entrance Ceremony and Training
Most of the companies have an entrance ceremony on April 1st because the school year ends in March, and the new recruits will join their companies all at once on the same day. Big companies will rent big halls just for the ceremony, and large cities’ public transportation system will be flooded with young new company employees in brand new suits. Presidents and executives will give speeches to welcome the new members, and for many people, this day will feel like the start of their new life. The magnitude of this day is very unique to Japan. It is not just the first day of work for new employees, but the fiscal year of the government and many companies also start in April. April is not only the season for cherry blossoms but also the starting season of many things. It makes many Japanese people a bit wistful in early April.
The day after the entrance ceremony, the new employees will start their job training. Big companies tend to have long courses to help their new recruits hit the ground running lasting from a few weeks to a few months, while smaller companies tend to have just one or two days of training away from the office. Small companies often emphasize on-the-job training, which is another big difference between working for a big company or working for a smaller company in Japan.
The first thing they learn is business manners, such as learning how to bow properly in business situations. Although Japanese people know how to bow in daily life situations, they have to learn proper ways. The angle of bowing differs per situation. They also learn how to exchange business cards, how to properly speak on the phone, where to sit in the taxi when they are with their boss or customers, and so on. There are rules for everything in Japanese business etiquette. The companies give this intensive fundamental training hoping the new employees stay in the company for a lifetime.
Japanese companies tend to cultivate generalists rather than specialists. By this idea, most of the employees experience many different divisions of the company to learn a variety of jobs in the company, and often they are also sent to other branches of the company in different cities or even countries so they really get to know the company inside and out. This also means that many Japanese employees will not jump ship easily, as they will never gain the skills necessary to become a true specialist that will also be useful in a different company. Only learning how to work with the principal company’s systems comp0unds that effect.
Payday and Bonuses
One of the busiest evenings in Japan’s nightlife districts is the 25th of the month, as for many company employees the 25th means payday. The company transfers the money to employees’ accounts after deducting tax, health insurance, pension, and unemployment insurance, so the money that they get is all theirs. Unless they are men who have wives that still believe in the pocket money system, that is.
In Japan, the salary structure is often so that the total yearly salary is made up of the usual salary plus one or two bonuses. These bonuses are quite substantial, often worth as much as twice or even 3 times the monthly salary. It used to be that companies only paid out bonuses to their employees if they made enough profit, but nowadays the bonus is pretty much a given. If you have a chance to visit your friends in Japan, right after they receive their bonus in June or December would be a great time to come.
In 2020, some companies did so badly though that they decided not to pay the (full) bonuses this time, this will hopefully not be necessary anymore once the COVID-19 crisis is over. This is especially important because many mortgages are actually based on a certain amount per month PLUS the payment of all bonuses, in order to make the monthly payments lower. Obviously, this leads to trouble when bonuses are not paid out.
Parties, Trips, and Events
As Japanese employees are gently pressured to see their coworkers as their family, it is not surprising that workers often go out for a few drinks after work with their colleagues or boss. These are informal situations, and you are not truly required to join them, however, the social pressure can be quite strong depending on where you work. The year-end and New Year parties are official events of the company though, meaning that you must attend them because they are a part of the job, even though you won’t get paid to attend.
Company trips used to be very popular in another attempt to familiarize coworkers with each other outside of the workplace. They often choose a ryokan (Japanese style hotel) with a hot spring and have a big party in a Japanese-style large dining hall. After the party, they bathe in the hot spring together. It is believed that entering a hot spring naked together shrinks the mental distance between coworkers. We even have a saying “Hadaka no Tsukiai” (literally ‘naked relationship’), which means having a truly close relationship. Rest assured that the males and females are strictly separated during the bathing part.
Sports events used to be popular, too, as it is believed to make the relationship among workers closer and stronger. Nowadays, however, these type of events became less popular, which might have something to do with younger workers being a bit more serious about having a healthy work-life balance and don’t wish to hang out with their coworkers more than what is necessary for doing their work.
Promotion and Beyond
Many companies used to have a seniority system meaning that no matter how good a job they do, employees will get promoted if they stay in the company for a long time. This system is slowly going out of fashion, as merit-based promotion is becoming more and more ubiquitous. On the other hand, there are many younger employees who don’t even want to get promoted. The reason for this is that they prefer to focus more on their private life, much to the chagrin of some of the older workers who still devoted their lives completely to the company. More and more, younger Japanese people are no longer workaholic.
Japan’s standard retirement age used to be 60 years old because the government started to pay state pensions from that age. Those employees who worked at one company for their whole working life get a retirement bonus from the company that can be worth over ten million yen (around 100.000 USD). Now, because the population of Japan is ageing at a rapid tempo, the government has raised the age to start receiving state pension to 65. Many companies have since started re-employment programs. Workers officially leave the company once they become 60, but if they want that, they are re-hired for another 5 years. The caveat is that both their position and their salary will (significantly) lower, which may not be a bad thing as in this way the many years of experience of the senior workers won’t be lost just yet, while they can take it a bit easier in their last few working years.
Do you want to know more about what happens once you have entered a company and settled in comfortably? Read this article to learn more about the daily life of a Japanese ‘salaryman’ or ‘office lady’.
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