Lifetime employment in Japan has long been regarded as one of the stereotypical features in the Japanese workplace. Our readings have shown us varying degrees of lifetime employment’s viability as an institution in different work environments and social classes. Exemplified through ethnographies about line workers at Yusumi Motors and the Azumi lingerie factory, the office ladies and salaried men in a Japanese bank, and the social elite of Japan’s doozoku geisha, it can be seen that there are elements of lifetime employment in each example as well as some important biases and inconsistencies in each.
At Yusumi Motors, Joshua Roth’s study was to examine how the factory ran and what it was like to be a foreign working alongside the Japanese. Studying the relationship between foreign and domestic workers on the line at Yusumi gives us some insight into the validity of a lifetime employment system in Japan. It is important to mention here that this study contains some biases as it is a narrow view of only one company and hence may not be reflective of all Japanese workplaces. It is also important to note again that Roth’s study is on the work and workers of the factory and not lifetime employment. Speculation on lifetime employment at Yusumi may not be completely representative of the system. Another bias of importance is that Roth came to Yusumi as an outsider, where there are a lot of foreign workers whom are not typically brought on to stay till retirement. This could affect Roth’s views on Yusumi as a lifetime employer.
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As Roth explains in his piece, lifetime employment systems in Japan have been waning as a result of the Japanese financial crisis. Companies seek to hire cheaper labor often found by bringing in foreign workers and day-laborers, which reflects a shift in the traditional commitment a Japanese company has towards its employees. As these workers are not necessarily long-term investments for the company, they do not receive the typical incentives to stay on for lifetime employment. At Yusumi this was evident.
Recent economic difficulties in Japan have led to an influx of foreign and guest workers in places like Yusumi. Immigrant workers create cheap and expendable labor. What this meant at Yusumi in terms of lifetime employment was that foreign and Japanese workers became distinguished. Jobs that foreigners took became associated with unacceptable work for the up-standing Japanese employees. With the decrease of skilled labor, more foreign workers without long-term incentives have put many salary men out of work. This increased competition means fewer workers make it to earn seniority wages and more Japanese feel insecure about lifetime employment.
This is interesting in light of Yusumi’s corporate culture and how they portray themselves. Roth describes the “Reassuring Life Plan” booklet that younger permanent employees receive as an outline of the major events of a worker’s life beginning with entrance to the firm and retirement at the end. Marriage and children come in between. This is evidence thatYusumi trys to appeal to an ideal of lifetime employment, however as Roth continues, among this group of young “permanent” employees, there has been a growing turnover rate (Roth, 50).
Along with the decrease in the amount of jobs, this indicates that lifetime employment is not really the priority of Yusumi’s corporate culture.
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Representative of broader economic change, there has been a shift Japanese values and attitude in the past decade. Companies are more interested in profits as a consequence of the recession, and families are in need of more financing for the higher standard of life today. Glenda Roberts does a good job in illustrating the current inadequacies of the Japanese lifetime employment model with her ethnography of the workers at Azumi. In the study Roberts focuses on shifting economic and social patterns in Japan and their resulting effects on female workers in Azumi’s factory.
With the price of living increasing in, more woman are working today in Japan than typically have in history. What we see from her study that is in contrast to the held notion of lifetime employment, women taking jobs with Azumi hardly ever make it to retirement. Not only does the firm not support, but the women often quit their jobs around the time when they get married or have children. This phenomenon is known as the M-curve, where there is a dip in female labor around women in their mid 20s and then a rise again in the 30s. Women leave because of social pressures and the expectations for the mother to run the home, but now more women are coming back to work or even working through marriage and child birth to meet growing financial needs. What Roberts’ study indicates is that “lifetime employment is for men” (Roberts, 71).
The women in the factory, although not usually fired, are often put through strenuous and miserable working conditions that often lead them to quit. Furthermore, few promotions or incentives are given. The company, by not firing its workers, covertly hinders lifetime employment by encouraging them to quit.
Robert’s study is somewhat biased as it only focuses on woman and again is narrow in scope because it is examining one company and mainly one type of worker. Roberts, like Roth, conducts the study from an outsider’s perspective. Although they both worked at the locations they were studying, it can be difficult to fully gain the trust of co-workers in a short time in Japan. Roberts does do a good job despite this in presenting her findings. The study shows that many of the women working at Azumi are faced with comparable situations socially and economically that are likely reflective of other women in Japan.
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The distinction Roberts brings up in her work between male and female workers is revisited in a sense in Ogasawara’s “Office Ladies and Salaried Men.” As we move socially higher up the employment ladder, we enter a bank’s office. Here, lifetime employment becomes more prevalent to salaried workers who are more highly educated. But, does this imply that lifetime employment really still exists in Japan? Certainly we see evidence of seniority wages and promotions, but do lower level workers in the firm? From this study it seems that again, lifetime employment is not available for everyone..
In the bank, the office ladies take jobs as part-time work. These women are often young and single and looking to start saving for marriage or to go out and have fun. Lifetime employment is not even a highly regarded goal for these ladies, nor is it feasible for them. Many of the women who work as OLs do not intend on staying employed for life and face considerable hardships in moving up the ladder. Hiring practices and wages are not always fair and promotions are incredibly difficult to achieve. Ogasawara continues to say that with social pressures the way they are many women quit their jobs for marriage and childbirth. What else is important here is that the companies use this as an excuse not to offer women the promotions their salaried men recieve, arguing that a “woman’s tenure with a company is too short” (Ogasawara, 36).
She is saying that it is the companies discriminatory policies that truly keep them from lifetime employment.
This could be seen as a bias of Ogasawara’s study because there is no real conclusive proof that the companies are in fact discriminating women when on one hand she explains how much power the women actually hold in the office behind the scenes, and on the other, the women, in actuality, do tend to leave the firm to pursue other passions in their life. The female’s lack of commitment and promotion potential highlight another flaw in the system. With no real motivation at work and behind the scenes power of the men they work for, these office ladies indirectly control the tenures of their salaried, male superiors. If a man falls into poor favor with one of the women she can have his career and chances for lifetime employment shattered. This is indicative that lifetime employment is possible but that it does not rest in the control of the boss, but of the women below who indirectly control productivity. This is not favorable to the system when you consider that these women have little inclination and even less opportunity to garner lifetime employment themselves. This study rather than looking at lifetime employment explores in the conflicting views of women as powerful and powerless.
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The idea of who has control over one’s opportunity for lifetime employment becomes an important issue in present day Japan. It is evident in the above examples that it is not controlled by the employee him/herself. What we see from Hamabata’s study is even more interesting. His look at the family run businesses of the Japanese elite questions even more, the long-held notion of lifetime employment and security in Japan. It also calls into question some of the typical stereotypes we have about how the Japanese family is actually organized. In his examination of the doozoku geisha, we see that as family heritage is passed on, it is not decided by any type of birth right, but rather by merit and what is determined by the current family head to be in the best interest of the family’s future and its business. Because of adoption, siblings and the ability for a daughter to marry in a new leader of the family, not even all of the children of the Japanese elite are guaranteed lifetime positions in their own family businesses. This study as the others, has some biases and caveats that must also be addressed.
First of all, Hamabata runs into the problem that both Roth and Roberts had, of being an outsider. Studying elite Japanese families, this problem of being an outsider has a greater effect on his study than it did on both of the previous ones mentioned. Hamabata, although close with some of the wives and children of the elite, had trouble getting access and candid response from the tops of the families. The workings of the business are held fairly secret and because they knew he was contacting other business competitors as well in his study they may have been reluctant or reserved while talking with him. It is also of key importance here to note that Hamabata’s study does not really look in depth at lifetime employment, but more about the workings of business ties in the Japanese family.
By examining these four studies it is clear that there has been a change over time in the historic lifetime employment models of Japan. Largely due to the boom and bust of the economy in the last two decades, Japan is adapting to new social pressures that have developed. People expect a higher standard of living today and jobs pay increasingly marginal wages. Furthermore, labor has grown more expendable with the growth of foreign and day laborer markets. Japanese culture is rigid and very traditional, and as we have seen, it changes slowly. With the above studies as evidence from various areas of the economy it appears that the institution of lifetime employment is in the midst of facing modernization or extinction. The fact that one’s ability to control their own job security in an economy that has long been know to reward commitment and create long-term stability through saving and seniority is a testament to the changing values in contemporary Japanese society.
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