Jobs and a typical career path in Japan

Please note the disclaimer.

Companies in Japan seek new graduates each year in a rather formal process, called shushoku katsudou. Hiring always starts in April – that’s when the university is over, so graduates are able to seamlessly proceed into their new role as full members of society and become shakaijin [1]. Students essentially spend their last university year with job hunting. If successful, life as a seishain awaits them. On the one hand, that means that your ass belongs to the company now, on the other hand that usually means job security until retirement [2]. Besides, switching careers or just going to another company would be quite difficult in Japan anyway.

The education at Japanese universities is subpar, at best [3]. Most Japanese students only go for a bachelor degree, and quite often, that is just… I mean I have seen on what kind of level (what’s a „pointer“?) students were when they came to us to pursue their master’s degree. That’s why big companies usually have their own internal training programs, and you cannot expect to have any kind of responsible work assigned in the first few years – let alone seek that kind of responsibility by yourself. When it comes to your degree, if at all, the brand name of the university counts; what you actually studied or accomplished is not so much of importance. This means that in an extreme case it could be that for example someone with degree in computer science would be set in accounting, if internal demand requires it. In any event, there will usually be some form job-rotation and relocations every few years.

Because of all of that, naturally companies want ‚em young and bendable. New employees on the other hand start at the bottommost position in the company hierarchy, and are expected to bend over and be happy with it. The Japs [4][5] have a word for that, and it’s called gamansuru, which roughly translates to being both ass-raped and cheerful about it at the same time. Grads with a bachelor degree are thus most favored, master’s a little less, and PhD’s… nobody really like PhD’s. Varies from dislike to open hatred, but liking – no. In any event, few Japanese students pursue an advanced degree, unless they plan a career in academics or to go to one of the few research centers of big companies. More on that later on.

Let’s talk money

Since you are starting at the very bottom, your salary is accordingly. Typical – and I really can only speak of my own area of expertise, rocket science (who cares vere zey come down?) that is, but there, it’s about 220000 Yen per month for grads with bachelor degree, and about 250000 to 260000 Yen for those with master’s or a PhD [6]. In fact, larger companies quite openly state this salary on their homepages, or on the job ads that get distributed to the universities. As said, these salaries are kind of non-negotiable, and your previous achievements are of minor importance, it’s more important that you „fit in“. In addition to the base salary there are often bonuses, and subsidies for rent or commuting. This additional salary however is very dependent on which company you join. The large ones, say Hitachi or Toshiba, do pay such bonuses; smaller companies however tend to promise a lot and then there a lots and lots and lots of reasons on why the bonuses at this particular year in this particular situation due to that particular reason unfortunately can’t be paid out. You have to gaman. You have to see the bigger picture here, the long-term goal [7]. Of course, under certain circumstances that can happen at larger companies too *cough* Sharp *cough*.

Your salary will rise with seniority and peaks around the age between 45 and 55. Between 55 and 60 you’ll usually be fired with a generous settlement, the taishokukin. That’s not just generosity of the company, that’s also meant to bridge until you are eligible to receive the national pension (from 65 years onward). Sometimes you are also re-hired at much worse conditions, or hired at a sub-contractor or at an external supplier.

Becoming seishain at a Japanese company is not impossible but very unlikely

Now, that’s a lot of text, but in summary: Becoming seishain at a Japanese company is not impossible but very unlikely if you are a (white) foreigner. I’ll elaborate more on the foreigner-thing in a next posting, but besides all these cultural issues, most western foreigners and students fall into one of these two categories:

  • those that studied something like engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, or one of the natural sciences and found somehow their way to Japan and
  • those who have a degree in oriental or Japanese studies.

In the first case you’ll likely be not fluent in Japanese. Or not fluent enough. I mean going through the hiring process is no different than at a, say American or German company. Acing at an assessment center, passing the group discussion (in Japanese), and solving the logic quizzes… – even if you are fluent enough to survive your everyday life, that simply won’t cut it.

And In the second case you’ll know nothing valuable whatsoever. I mean you’ll probably be able to speak Japanese. But then again, there are approximately 120 million Japanese citizens who are also able to do so. Sure, your Japanese might be even better, your sonkeigo and kenjougo might be better than a lot of young Japanese‘ and you might be able to read the Tales of Genji in the unedited original; something most Japanese won’t be able to. I congratulate you for that. But honestly, no one gives a frack. Yeah, maybe you’ll be able to read the logic quizzes, but likely lack the skill to understand the actual math.

To conclude however I have to state one thing: There are always exceptions. Personally, I do not know a single foreigner who became seishain, but I am quite sure that there is one out there. And I have my highest respect for him or her. You made it! You truly assimilated into a Japanese lifestyle. That’s something not many other foreigners are capable or willing to do – and I will talk in a later posting on whether that’s actually desirable. My whole point is: For the rest of us, the other 99 percent, we simply have to resort to other means.

There are other ways to land a job in Japan. You’ll have to resort to your special Gaijin powers.

Yup, the Japs are still way into the whole rangaku thing.

[1] If you are a student, heck even if you are a grad student on a scholarship, you are essentially just a parasite of the generous society, but obviously not contributing anything worthwhile. After all, you don’t have a job, right?

[2] Times in Japan are changing too, but at least you can be assured to be the last to let go. Unless you really mess up or the company is in severe trouble, you can expect that all the contract workers will be fired won’t have their contracts extended first. Well ok, maybe you’ll be bullied out, but technically, you are employed for lifetime.

[3] This is a broad generalization, no doubt. There is excellent research output from some universities, there is excellence in engineering and the natural sciences. But even if that is the case, it does not necessarily mean that your average undergraduate student will benefit from it. Student attitude towards university life is also a big issue here – the university is probably the only time where young people can really relax and enjoy their life without too much boundaries after the stressful university entrance exams and before going into a life as 60 hours/week company trooper.

[4] In case you feel offended: Boowhooo. Here is a tissue.

[5] Also, feel free to go with Fritz, Jerry, Kraut, and the like in the comments. I don’t give frack. You should’ve realized by now that this is none of those clean pc doubleplusgood Newspeak blogs.

[6] Yes, a frickin eikaiwa teacher makes about the same or even more. Ok, probably won’t get any bonuses. Nothing against English teachers, they are some very respectable folks out there, but … come on!

[7] Like the boss‘ next Porsche.


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