Firms′ conservative hiring holds back Japan | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 31.05.2013
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Firms' conservative hiring holds back Japan

Many young Japanese students go abroad to study with high hopes. They return home with foreign degrees and even higher hopes, only to be shot down by conservative company ideals.

On the very first day in her first job after graduation, Tomoko Tanaka says her dominant emotion was of disappointment.

Tanaka, who does not want her real name or the name of her company used in this article because it could affect her career, began work in April of this year and had high hopes that the years she spent studying overseas would make her a popular candidate with Japanese employers.

Instead, it seems, the effort and money that went into perfecting her English skills in the UK may have been wasted as Japanese firms do not always welcome potential recruits who have been exposed to foreign ways of thinking and behaving.

"I did not have a clear dream for my career, but I did want to work for a big and famous company," 23-year-old Tanaka told DW. "I studied in the UK for one year, I learned about the difficulties of living with people from various countries, from different cultures, and the importance of taking action in order to change something and to make myself understood.

"And I felt more confident after living abroad because I could overcome many difficulties," she added.

High test scores

Initially, Tanaka was encouraged by her job interviews as employers seemed to value a high score in language assessment tests.

After securing a job that appeared to offer good career prospects, Tanaka learned that she was being sent to a rural part of Japan and would be working in the administration department. Since she started, she has not yet had an opportunity to use her English skills.

"In my opinion, most Japanese companies want young people who have a 'Japanese background' and international communication skills, but I think that is global human resources in a very limited sense," she said.

Businessman with laptop © Elwynn, Fotolia

Graduates from foreign universities find it difficult to get a job

"It seems that Japanese companies want young people to obey their rules, but only to use their skills when the company needs it," she added.

But this runs counter to what Japan needs in the rapidly evolving world of international trade, commerce and international relations.

In March, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan would take part in negotiations to construct the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement and indicated that opening up to the rest of the world offers the best chances of growth for the nation.

Japan has also actively been seeking a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, the government is planning to revise parts of the constitution that will enable Japanese troops to play much larger roles in international peace-keeping operations and companies are being encouraged to go further afield to secure the resources and markets that will provide for the nation's future.

Companies lagging behind

Many companies here, however, are not keeping up with that vision.

A survey conducted in March 2012 by Disco, a Tokyo-based recruitment company, determined that less than one in four firms planned to hire Japanese applicants who had studied abroad.

Even among major, blue-chip companies, less than 40 percent said they would employ Japanese who had attended a foreign university.

Aware of the problems they face if they have invested their time and funds on an education overseas, more are staying closer to home. In 2004, there were 82,945 Japanese at colleges overseas; in 2010, the figure had contracted to less than 60,000. In the US alone, the number has fallen from a peak of 47,000 in the 1997-'98 academic year to just 19,900 in 2011-'12.

Inevitably, as places are freed up at foreign institutions, they are being snapped up by students from developing nations with a thirst for knowledge, with China and India in the forefront of the surge.

"It seems to me that for the first few years of young Japanese graduates' careers, they are effectively being 'trained' in the corporate culture and requirements of their company," said Chris Burgess, a lecturer in English and Australian Studies at Tsuda College in Tokyo.

Talent going to waste

"That means that despite all the rhetoric from the government, these companies are wasting so much talent," he said.

A woman walks past an electronic board displaying a graph showing a dramatic turnaround of Japan's Nikkei average outside a brokerage in Tokyo May 23, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Toru Hanai)

PM Abe indicated that opening up to the rest of the world could help the country's growth

"They are usually long-standing institutions with structures that are very difficult to reform," he said. "There is an inbred corporate culture and they are very reluctant to evolve, even when they need to do precisely that to survive in an increasingly competitive business world."

It is an alarming statistic that fully 25 percent of new employees at Japanese companies resign within the first three years, he said, simply because they are not satisfied with what they are doing.

"I felt confident and really motivated when I started my job interviews," said 26-year-old Yumi Hara, from Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo.

Two years in London and a degree in East Asian Studies from the University of Virginia that gave her Chinese and Korean on top of her English would make her an attractive option for a Japanese company that had ambitions of expanding its operations overseas.

"But in the interviews, they didn't really want to know what I thought, but whether I was able to give them the perfect answer, to tell them what they wanted to hear," she said.

Hara admits she was "devastated" at the constant rejections - particularly when she discovered that friends who had opted to go to Japanese universities and had very limited language abilities were getting the very jobs that she wanted.

She shrugs.

"Today I'm teaching English in a small school and I'm pretty happy doing this as it's a small company and I have the responsibility to start new things," she said. "I don't think I'll be going to work for a big Japanese company any time soon."

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