Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about welfare rolls swelling with large numbers of unemployed men who seem to have no will to work. One of the implications of the NHK special from which much of the column was derived is that there are jobs out there but that these men are either unqualified for them or not motivated enough to make whatever adjustments are necessary to secure them. When I first came to Japan and taught English to company employees on a contract basis, most of my students were university graduates, but except for the engineers they had learned practically everything they needed to know for their work on-the-job. At the time, this practice seemed wasteful. Why spend all that money and intellectual effort striving for and then earning a college degree when, in the end, your company was going to supersede it all with its own training and “corporate culture”? Eventually, I came to understand that the university experience had two purposes in the larger scheme of Japanese corporate business. It provided recruiters with a filtering system, a means of pre-evaluating potential employees based on which university they attended, since they all knew what it took to get into certain schools. And it also prepared these so-called corporate warriors for the life of a salaryman, which had as much to do with loyalty (to one’s school, to one’s company) and comeraderie as it did with being a productive worker. Being an American raised on the sanctity of self-determination, I didn’t find this model of employment appealing, but I quickly grasped its value in the larger scheme of Japan’s industrial mission, which was a direct reaction to the postwar trauma of trying to rebuild from literally nothing.
Once the mission was accomplished by the mid 1980s, this model became economically cumbersome, and in any event was seriously undermined when the bubble burst in 1990. Since then, corporate culture has gradually taken the more widely held laissez faire approach to employment, meaning, in the crude American parlance, “Show me what you got.” Experience, by implication a resource based on proactive involvement, is now more important than a willingness to give oneself over to a circumscribed group. It is still a notion that many Japanese workers, even younger ones who entered the job market well after the storied “lifetime employment” system had already become moribund, can’t quite get their heads around. The problem is, even the authorities don’t seem to grasp the full scope of the problem. Retraining is one obvious solution, but education in Japan has always been a young person’s game. Once you’ve “entered society”–i.e., secured your first full-time job–it’s almost unseemly to go back to school, any school. That may explain why retraining programs in Japan seem like torture to the people who take them (or, at least, that’s my impression based on what I’ve seen on TV). But maybe I’m generalizing. I recently read that there are one million jobs in America unfilled because there are no qualified people for those positions. If that’s true, maybe it means Americans, whether they represent the public or the private sector, aren’t sufficiently behind retraining either. So the problem may have more to do with being old than with being Japanese.