今週のFinancial Time magagine UK版 は日本の若い世代からの日本の未来に対するコメント特集

Youth of the ice age

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Kumiko Shimotsubo can pinpoint almost to the day the start of “the ice age”. For her, the great opportunity-freeze began in the winter of 1995. That was when she and her fellow students at the University of Tsukuba, a modern campus outside Tokyo, set out on a rite of passage known as the shushoku katsudo. Literally the “find work activity”, the shushoku katsudo is the mass screening of graduates by corporate Japan. It is a crucial event for those wanting a slice of the Japanese Dream. Graduates who fail to slide directly from university into a large corporation rarely get a second chance. The “find work activity” amounts to a once-in-a-lifetime shot at what Shimotsubo calls “the promised road”.

For Shimotsubo, a slightly disenchanted 37-year-old whose business card identifies her as a “Bilingual Writer/HR Consultant/Intercultural Facilitator”, the promised road has been barred to entry. She failed to land a job at an established company on graduation, obliging her to strike out on her own. Once off the Japanese corporate escalator, you can almost never get back on. The same disappointment has awaited millions of Japanese who, like Shimotsubo, set out in adult life after Japan’s economy juddered to a near-halt in the 1990s.

There are still excellent jobs to be had at elite companies. Japan’s economy has not performed as wretchedly as is sometimes believed, especially when measured in per capita terms. The unemployment rate, now 4.6 per cent, has never scaled the dreadful heights of the US or Britain, let alone Spain. But what used to be considered good jobs at stable companies are far scarcer than they once were. In the years of super-accelerated growth, before Japan’s bubble burst, male students at good universities were almost guaranteed a position at a paternalistic company. Under normal circumstances, it would last until retirement. A nice wife, perhaps one of the secretaries from the typing pool, would follow. Sure, men might have to sing company songs and put in hours of pointless overtime, but they would be looked after. Life was mapped out.

Today, those certainties are vanishing. For many they have disappeared altogether. An increasing number of younger Japanese work in part-time, dead-end jobs; a minority simply stays at home playing video games or surfing the internet. Japanese companies, which have adapted to tightened economic circumstances more quickly than policy makers, have dramatically cut the number of full-time workers they employ. Many have achieved that not by sacking existing workers. In the main, they have tried hard to honour the implicit contract with employees that Shimotsubo likens to the compact between a feudal lord and his samurai. Instead of ejecting their loyal retainers, companies have saved money by simply not hiring new ones.

In 1990, less than 20 per cent of workers were classified as casual. Today more than 35 per cent are part-time, non-permanent, contract and so-called “dispatched” workers – sent, like returnable packages, from employment agencies to companies wary of taking on permanent staff. That phenomenon is a commonplace of advanced economies. But it has wounded Japan’s (not entirely accurate) self-image of being a singularly egalitarian society. The casualisation of labour has widened the wealth gap. Many part-time workers earn as little as $10 an hour – even less outside Tokyo – and receive little in the way of health and pension benefits. To many Japanese, society feels more uneven, more unfair than at any time in living memory.

I met Shimotsubo, now married with a daughter, in an elegant tearoom in the lobby of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. Slim, with a fashionably jagged haircut and a double string of pearls hung over a loose sweater, Shimotsubo speaks good English, learnt at an internationally minded high school in Yokohama. That has helped her short-circuit the Japanese system by getting work at foreign companies operating in Japan.
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