It is Wednesday night at the Japanese Think Tank UFJ Research&Consulting’s premises, in one of the skyscrapers in downtown Tokyo. A case study opens the session. Around twenty foreign students and recent graduates together with a lesser number of Japanese professionals listen to the case study: The case study is like this:
how a foreigner –let’s call him Wang – decided to face his Japanese manager with inquiries concerning the core hour meetings. Not a small number of surprised faces could be spotted when learning that the manager allowed the intrepid Wang to skip meetings of no direct concern and to keep his working schedule more adjusted to his morning style than to anybody’s late habits.
Participants let loose their argumentative instincts during the discussion session marked by two provoking main driving questions: was common or uncommon the manager’s attitude in the Japanese workplace? How about Wang’s boldness? “A bit daring”; “more information is needed”; “he acted rightfully”; etc. It was a multicolor perspective on Wang’s story.
A very informed presentation by a HR expert followed the session, introducing, mostly to the foreign guests, the Membership-contract and Job-contract system, according to which, he suggested the case study could be better understood and judged. Following those lines, given that foreigners usually are supposed to have a job-contract relationship, in virtue of which a salary is exchanged for a traditionally understood job according to western perspective, and no more than that, then Wang’s action was just fine.
The perspective would change if judged following the Membership-contract relationship according to which employer and employee settle in a deeper relationship of job stability and gradual salary increase, on one hand, in return of various forms of renunciations and commitments such as workplace relocation at company’s disposal, on the other.
Many of the Japanese participants raised their opposing voices, convinced that the dual system described does not necessarily reflect Japan of today; and those voices are echoed by the overall takeaway – there is change in Japan! – For the non-Japanese participants, more than half of whom expressed their increase motivation in pursuing a career in Japan.
Going beyond that circumstantial focus group evidence, are there compelling signs of the Japanese workplace moving in more foreigners-welcoming fashion?
It is not recent that the Japanese Employment System (seniority-based salary system and so on) is said to be changing. News can be tracked back as far as 1993 (LINK).
Nevertheless, there are various driving forces pressing Japan to put real actions to its intentions. Some of such forces are the accelerating global competition and aging which are making real the likelihood of the above-mentioned changes becoming speedier.
As evidence, according to statistics from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, in December of 2015, for the first time the proportion of non-regular employees at private companies had risen above 40%. (LINK). That increase was coming gradually in previous years.
On the other hand, nowadays there is not a single week (sometimes single day) that passes by without the media mentioning aging. The Japanese participants with the opposing voices, mentioned above, would agree that considering Japan is projected to shrink its population by ten million every decade from 2020 (LINK), there are not so many serious choices left.
The logical connection between those driving forces is simple. To increase the appeal for foreigners of working in Japan, those skilled ones that companies worldwide are fighting for, and urgently needed in the shrinking Japan, there has to be change in the traditional employment system.
Having said that, in reality, it is not only about relaxing the system for the sake of attracting more comers from overseas. Japan needs such changes for the sake of improvement international competitiveness, as suggested earlier. Probably it is the case that indeed every cloud has a silver lining: aging being the trigger for Japan opening up more to foreign long term visitors.