Chapter 5: Employment in Japan

It seems that the music played by Kato has closed the gap once more between the hostages and terrorists. Everyone has become rather lively and with it new bonds are formed. We see Hosokawa and Roxanne with their subtle show of affection to each other. We see Generals seeking out Messner, often for reasons that don’t involve negotiations. We also see Gen and Carmen form a new bond at the end of the chapter as Carmen approaches him for lessons. Yet, I couldn’t help but refer to the profound relationship between Hosokawa and Kato. Although it wasn’t explicitly said, I can infer that these two elderly men have known each other for quite some time since they work at the same company and have knowledge, although not intimate, of each other. Hosokawa holds a higher status because he is the founder and chairman of Nansei while Kato is known as the vice president of the company and for being “good at numbers”. I chose to do my research on the Japanese work force while looking more in-depth look at the employee-employer relationship in Japan.

In order to learn more about Japan’s work force system, I found an article written by Kristin Wingate on the Japanese salarymen. This refers to the white collar company employees who earn “based on individual abilities rather than on seniority.” She examines Japan’s change in attitude towards the traditional system versus the more modernized Western system. In it I learned that Japan has been using lifetime employment since 1950s based on ideas that by hiring employees that are straight out of high schools or university, they are to be expected to work endlessly for this company until they retire between age 55 and 60 with the belief that this upholds the old Confucian values of “loyalty, discipline, and sincerity”. (Uzama and Wingate) Wingate further reports that although Japanese culture puts an emphasis on the importance of family, “most salaryman replace their families with corporation.” (Wingate, 2011) This is quite unsettling because these employees end up neglecting their own families in exchange for working more hours. Although it can be argued that by working more, they earn more money to better support and provide for the family, I believe that their efforts are pointless if they cannot find the time to participate in social activities that strengthens their bond as a family. I can’t help but relate this to the intimacy and affection that Hosokawa admits he sorely lacks with his own family.

Wingate further explains the noticeable shift of Japanese acceptance going away from the lifetime employment system and more towards the individualistic and expressionistic modernized system those Western countries such as the United States offers. She pointed out that women were amongst those that did not benefit from the lifetime employment system. (Wingate 2011) Notice that in Bel Canto, the room is left with the more valuable and important people, referring to the men. Furthermore, Patchett has only distinguished Roxanne who in her own field is considered quite skillful and can on equal footing with these men and holding a high position as proof of her prowess. The women in Japan lack the respect to be treated with equality and are therefore at the disadvantage when it comes to finding jobs in Japan. I found an article in the Economist about women in Japan who, despite of her skills, high education and connections, have to compromise their careers because of lack of acceptance in the labor force. “Female participation in the labor force is 63%, far lower than in other rich countries. When women have their first child, 70% of them stop working for a decade or more, compared with just 30% in America. Quite a lot of those 70% are gone for good.” Wow, and that’s it! I would attribute this back to the deeply rooted Japanese idea that women are expected to stay at home and care for the family. In what way is this helping Japan’s economy? The article further reported that “the fertility rate, already low, plunged further, bottoming out at 1.26 children per woman in 2005 before edging up to 1.41 in 2012” when women were encouraged to remain at home. (Economist 2014) In fact, a recurring theme throughout Japanese culture that I have noticed is that the needs of the whole (country, nation, company, family) outweighs the needs of the individual. Not only women but for every individual, the family or the corporation is put first. “Few women hold professional, technical or managerial roles. In 2012 they made up 77% of Japan’s part-time and temporary workforce [to earn extra income].” Wingate insists that this is why the younger generations are stirring away from the traditional Japanese values considering that other countries like the United States has largely contrasting ideals that puts more emphasis on being independent and individualization. (Wingate 2011) I understand how this may be more appealing to most youths, especially women, in Japan because it encourages equality, creativity, pushes one to stand out from the norm, and to make something of themselves so that they are not working for the sake of being employed but for the sake of putting their skills to good use.

The Economist article veered towards my second question on employee-employment interaction. Working at a typical Japanese company includes “ferociously long working hours, often stretching past midnight, followed by sessions of “nominication”, a play on the Japanese word for drinkingnomu, and the English word “communication”; these are where young hopefuls forge connections and build reputations.” (Economist 2014) I believe this infers to the social gatherings that employees are obligated to attend in order to build interpersonal dependence that could strengthen teamwork, increase job satisfaction, and improve job productivity, all for the benefit of the company. Again, they are not really thinking of the individual. Since they would be working with each other for years in the future, due to the lifetime employment policy, these gatherings allow the development of “co-worker altruism”. As the employee of a company, you can expect that you will see the same people at work, day in and day out so this proximity cannot be avoided and is almost required to maintain a pleasant working environment until such time. Of course, in Japan status is a big thing because they are an authority-ranking culture as observed by Wingate. Wingate points out that there is a profound psychological relationship between leaders and followers. “For example, instead of a handshake, which is an indicator of equality, the Japanese greet each other with a bow.” (Wingate 2011) From my previous research on Japanese etiquette and conduct, it confirms that the lower one bows the more respect they are showing and therefore, they are indicating that someone is above them in station. Growing up in the modern American system and values, I find this quite disconcerting because we are brought up to believe that we deserve respect and equality despite any implication of our social or economical status.

Cole Short explored the employee-employer relations in Japan for his honors thesis. His investigation of the literature further explains what I have already learned from the previous articles but the key thing I learned is the term communalism, referring to the notion of shared responsibility. In cases where Japanese companies take responsibility for corporate mishaps involving widespread health concerns or products that present danger to their consumers, these result in wage reductions for that company to cover for their losses. However, “when crisis does not affect the inner-workings of Japanese firms, veterans in the business ha been historically privileged with higher wages, [unprecedented level of job security], and commonly strong trust relationships established with their higher-ups.” (Short 2013) Corporate relations are greatly influenced by cultural and societal concerns. I came to understand that aside from gaining maximum income, Japanese companies also rely heavily on how they are perceived by the general public because it directly correlates with their success. My takeaway is that there is positive interaction between the employers and employees when the company is experiencing success because circumstances are more favorable, therefore, each party are benefitting from their collaboration. Furthermore, the employees act as the “internal goods” so that the company and their employees may gain “external goods” such as profit, global expansion and increased market shares. The gains that the company receives can therefore be circulated through benefits and job security to their employees. Hosokawa efficiently utilized the opportunity given to him, although unknowingly, by Kato. Therefore, Hosokawa benefited from the skills utilized by Kato.

Overall, my findings gave me a better understanding of how and the reasoning behind Japanese culture as they conduct their businesses and corporations. My finding allowed me to have further understanding for how employees and employers are influenced to develop interpersonal dependence in order to act as a homogenous and efficient unit that will therefore aid in the prosperity of the company. My research led me to different avenues related to the employment process in Japan. There are certainly limitations to their system that beckons change as each generation entering a career as a salary person bring more modernized values that challenge the traditions.

  1. Holding back half the nation. The Economist. 2014.

2. Short CE. Employee-Employer Relations in Japan: An Analysis of Honor-Shame and Authority-Power Relations within the Modern Japanese Workplace. Baylor University. 2013.

3. Uzama A. A Critique of Lifetime Employment in Japan (Shushinkoyou). Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.

4. Wingate K. Japanese Salarymen: On the Way to Extinction?. Undergraduate Journal of Global Citizenship. 2011; 1(1): (2).


4 thoughts on “Chapter 5: Employment in Japan

  1. Michael Pedersen says:

    This shift from familial altruism and honor usually associated with the Japanese to a more business focused altruism is intriguing because it reflects the changing political mindset of conservative japan. You briefly mentioned the idea of altruism while talking about how the country, business of family comes before the individual and I suggest you follow up on it because according to some sociologists like Emile Durkheim some social effects, like suicide and social isolation, can be explained by examining altruistic social patterns.

    As an offshoot of this research topic it may be interesting to look into the historical figures of Japan’s GDP versus the implementation of the lifetime work policy you mentioned started around the 1950s. As you mentioned in class this type of system could lead to lower productivity in the later years of an employee’s life career and so by checking against the GDP perhaps you can glean some useful insights.

    A disconcerting aspect of this commitment to employers is the fact that the world, or at least most up and coming companies, are practicing the entrepreneurial philosophy of “fail faster” meaning that it is okay to fail but at least do it quickly so that the rest of the business can overcome the failure. These short lived companies ravage this commitment policy set in place by the monolithic, government sponsored, companies of the past. Thus, looking into the changing business strategies of the world and seeing how it conflicts, or complements, the lifetime work policy might be another interesting outgrowth of this base research.

    Overall, your blog post was an enjoyable read that consistently and thoroughly flushed out the topic at hand while simultaneously opening up other avenues of research.


  2. ballen68 says:

    I found your research about Japan’s labor force very interesting. No other country that I have ever heard of runs their workforce like this. It is very interesting, but I am sure it has its benefits. The thing is I think that this had its time and place, but I don’t think it is for all times, or all cultures. The problem I see is that there is little motivation for these workers because there is no way for them to be promoted.
    Motivation is a huge influencer on how well a business is run. Your employees are stakeholders, and if they do not have a clear motivator to make them work harder, then it is hard for a business to see success. Whether it be a promotion, a raise, or even a new job somewhere else, people need to be motivated in life to be productive. This is the largest problem I see with this labor structure.
    The biggest benefit of it however is that your workers should be less stressed because they have job security. It is very similar to tenure that government workers have here in the United States. Their stress levels decrease, because they aren’t as worried about getting fired anymore. I feel like that would translate into this, because they are such similar circumstances of job security. The other benefit I see is that you should develop a bond with your coworkers from working with them your whole lives. If your whole career is spent working alongside the same individuals, then it is safe to assume a bond would be made. That is if they don’t dislike each other. I look forward to seeing how well this structure works out for Japan in the future.


  3. Colin Murphy says:

    Hi Hannah,

    Thank you for your well-written post on employment in Japan!

    Prior to reading your post I was not aware of the history behind Japanese company job-security; I certainly would not have guessed that employees were hired for life! Here in the States job security is often a rarity, though the thought of being stuck at any particular company doesn’t sound very desirable. Personally I’ve known Japan for its high-quality photography equipment and mechanical watch movements; I wonder if extreme employee specialization is an explanation…

    The article you found by Kirstin Wingate certainly does explain why Mr. Hosokawa thinks to himself how he isn’t particularly “in touch” with his wife and family. Nice job identifying a source of thought and beginning the process of Slow Research here. According to the process, the next step would be to take what you’ve learned from the source and continue your research… And you have! You bring up the ethical dilemma of whether or not the benefit of a group outweighs the benefit of an individual. This is actually something I learned about in an philosophy course I took last year – it’s an approach discussed in the theory of cost-benefit analysis, whereby something is deemed ethical if it brings more good than bad.

    Your sources look appropriately scholarly and are certainly creditable (I especially like your reference to the Economist). What I suggest you consider in your next post is how one topic can lead to other questions you find interesting as they relate to the novel. In other words, focus on improving the conversation between you and your research. Again, this is a very well-written post and I can’t wait to hear what you’ll research for us during our discussion next week!

    – Colin


  4. katelynzander says:

    You said in your blog “Japan has been using lifetime employment since 1950s based on ideas that by hiring employees that are straight out of high schools or university, they are to be expected to work endlessly for this company until they retire between age 55 and 60”. After reading this part I wonder the effects of lifetime employment causes for Japan and their citizens. How low is their standard of living in Japan? How high is their suicide rate? How long is their average work day? Did you research anything about if someone was to quit their job are they unable find a job elsewhere before an employer would view them as disloyal? That constant feeling of entrapment could lead to some serious physiological issues. I research and I found that Japan has a low rate of diagnosed depression but yet a high suicide rate. To me, it seem you cannot have high suicide rates without a high rate of depression. Therefore it seems that Japan has issues with their citizens admitting their depression and not finding help.
    I believe it would be interesting to further your research into the economic effects of this “lifetime employment” compared to other countries. Perhaps, research how other countries treat employment/employees along with their standard of living. There could be an interesting correlation between a positive or negative workforce compared with the mental health of the country. Finding the “best” way to improve productivity within factories could be through shorter work days or longer lunch breaks.


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