The word for ‘job-hunting’ in Japanese is shūshoku katsudō (就職活動), often shortened to shūkatsu (就活). It literally means ‘start-work-activities’ or ‘preparing to start working.’ Though the kanji is different, the short version shūkatsu is a homophone for a newish expression shūkatsu (終活) that means ‘preparing to die,’ according to my Japanese tutor and also the Internet and Wikipedia (page in Japanese). Shūkatsu 終活 ‘preparing to die’ is similar to ‘getting one’s affairs in order’ or doing things like, for the terminally ill or elderly, making a will or booking a spot in a cemetery. Shūkatsu 就活 ‘preparing to work,’ on the other hand, is doing things in order to be able to effectively give your life (or at least the ‘prime’ 40 years or so) to a company in return for money and a respectable place in society. So I found this homophone depressingly amusing.
I should point out that again, with this post, I can’t compare the culture directly with an Australian equivalent because it’s not something I have ever been very aware of in Australia – very little experience as everyday life to draw on – and also because it doesn’t exist in the same way. This may make more sense throughout the post.
Join a company?
The lifestyle of being a company employee or salaryman may not be growing in Japan, but it is still alive and well, and for those in it, work is life. You start at the bottom and through time and experience, work your way to the top. It’s a lifetime of secure employment, health insurance and pension (and long days, with your longest ever break being about 3 consecutive days unless you get married, in which case you get 5 – by the way, you’re entitled to annual leave, you just don’t take it unless you get sick or your kid is graduating or something) and job-hunting is the way into it.
Job-hunting in Japan
You wear a black suit with black shoes and an appropriate black briefcase. You have a nice, tidy haircut. If your hair isn’t black enough, you dye it. If you have visible piercings, you take them out, but it’s better just not to get piercings because people will be able to see the little holes and they’ll know. Tattoos? Forget it. Conservative business style is the done thing, and the done thing is what you do if you want to get into a company.
Some people get into industries straight from school or via a part-time job, but for the majority, job-hunting is in the third or maybe last year of an undergrad degree. If you want to go overseas, you should do it before this, because companies take you straight out of university: they want to train you and shape you in their own mould. So if you want to get into a company, you don’t take time off and you certainly don’t go overseas for more than a few days. You also don’t stick around university getting a Masters without a pretty good reason, because that’s what people do when they haven’t succeeded in getting into a company the first time, so it makes you look less successful and reduces your chances in the vicious job-hunting world. There’s one path to being a kaisha-in (company employee), and if you leave the path, it’s pretty hard if not impossible to get back on. It’s also unofficially best to be a man if you want the best chance, because it’s assumed if you’re a man, you’re not going to want to take time off in a couple of years to have kids.*
Last year, living in Gifu, I went to visit a friend in Osaka. She was in her second-last year at university, studying languages, and one of the mornings I was there, she had to go to a ‘job-hunting event’ in a suit, including jacket and stockings – in Osaka midsummer (hot and humid). I wondered if it was an interview, if she had to wear a suit, but she said there would be maybe a couple of hundred people there, and probably 2 or so people each from 4 or 5 companies would be making presentations about their companies: some sort of recruitment seminar. This wasn’t a direct application, she was just going to watch some presentations. So who said she had to wear a suit?
Nobody; it’s just part of the culture of shūkatsu. In fact, the event information said that the dress code was informal, but my friend didn’t want to believe it and turn out to be the only person not in a suit, and she was sure everyone else going would think the same and behave the same. Her plan was to wait until she was nearly in sight of the building before she put on the jacket. Which she would not take off. Her theory was that the companies deliberately put these events in the summer to test the commitment of potential applicants to their careers.
I asked her about what sort of company she wanted to work for. She said she hadn’t decided yet between a food company (a big one, like Ajinomoto, Coca-cola etc.) and going into education. This surprised me not only because those things are quite different but because we had originally met in Europe as language students, and I knew she was studying languages. I asked if she didn’t need a relevant degree? She said no, it didn’t really matter what you studied. (Obviously there are exceptions to this, like law, nursing, medicine, etc.) My next question was, well then, why go to university at all? Isn’t it a waste of time and money if you’re not going to use what you learn?
Apparently not: with a few rare straight-out-of-school exceptions, if you don’t have a degree, companies don’t want you. You can do other work in hospitality and other things that hire part-time, but it’s not worth applying at a big company.
Working for a Company
Growing up in Australia, when I thought about what I wanted to do when I grew up, I thought of jobs and job settings, as in, workplaces. I never thought about who I wanted to work for, or indeed, working for anybody, but I think there is more focus on this in Japan: when you ask someone what they do, company employees often respond ‘I’m a company employee.’ Of course teachers, nurses, police officers etc. say so, but with company employees, if you want to know what that means and what they actually do for the company, you have to drag it out of them. Maybe it’s just because I’m foreign and they either assume I won’t know the job in Japanese, but…? It often goes like this.
‘So what do you do?’
‘I’m a company employee.’
‘Oh, cool, and what company do you work for?’
‘I work for a car/pharmaceutical/random manufacturing company.’
‘Nice. What do you do for them?’
‘I’m an office worker.’
… (subject peters out)
Company loyalty and lifelong service is highly valued in Japan, and in young new recruits, maybe even assumed. According to a friend who recently started working for a big company, your first year(s) you spend a lot of time training. The first few weeks of my friend’s career in this Big Company consisted of sitting through lectures about things like how to cook for yourself or how to read a newspaper – things you will need to know as a Company Employee who will sooner or later represent said Company and at that time had better look like a competent Member of Society. (Plus you won’t need to take time off work if you don’t give yourself food poisoning when you cook for yourself for the first time?)
Also according to friends, when you go into a company, you don’t get to choose what you do for that company. This means you don’t apply for a specific position within the company – you apply to become a member/employee of the company, and they decide what you do. So you might do an engineering degree, get into a car company, and be told that you’re in the marketing department. And it might change to HR a few years later, who knows.
Teachers in public elementary or middle/junior high schools also don’t get to choose what school they’re in, and the Board of Education can move them from teaching grade 2 home room one year to year 7 English the next. This happened to a teacher I was working with last year and it was pretty rough on her; she said she didn’t understand why they did that.
I found the idea of applying not for a specific job but to be part of a company pretty foreign and told my parents about it, and they said it used to be that way in the Australian public service too – and in the military, maybe it still is. This kind of made more sense to me, considering the ceremonial and militaristic aspects of Japan and its ways of doing things.
After writing recently that people don’t really change jobs/careers in Japan, I went to a barbeque and met two or three people who had done just that. There was an ex-primary teacher who was now a PA and another company-employee-turned-secretary or two. They were all women, and they were all doing jobs that didn’t require very specific qualifications and didn’t pay as well as their previous jobs. Maybe it’s easier/more possible for women to change careers, or maybe just more appealing for them. I’ve only met two Japanese man who have changed careers: one went from hairdressing to painting houses – he was one on the alternative path of non-company-employeedom – and the other had a stroke (in his 30s) and had to get off the kaisha-in (company employee) path. He has two part-time jobs now.
People also change jobs within their careers through transfer within the company, or even transfer to a different company in the same industry, in which case, experience is counted as a positive. But the range of (new) job opportunities available to Japanese people after the age of 22-23 quickly diminishes. That being said, one of my customers at an English cafe last year was a newly qualified nurse who had worked in the Maldives as a scuba diving instructor for 7 years – it’s definitely not all industries who only take young green recruits.
I was going to write a bit about university in this post, but it will have to be next time. So as they like to say here, please look forward to that. And as I seem to like to say, thank you for reading, and please read again.
*There was a bit of publicity about paternity leave late in 2015: a government worker promoting it was going to take it – or already had, maybe – and then was caught cheating on his wife. He had to make a big public apology, lost a lot of face, and ended up not helping the cause very much. There were comments to the effect that men shouldn’t have paternity leave because they’ll just use it to cheat on their partners and waste time and money. I have heard of men who apply for paternity leave being flat-out refused, too. I don’t know if prospective employers ask interviewees about intentions to have children or not, but according to one of my Japanese tutors, it’s still harder for young women to get into companies than young men.