Shūkatsu utsu, the Psychological Toll of Job-Hunting in Japan
Volume 20, Issue 3 (Article 8 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 December 2020.
The Japanese expression shūkatsu utsu, refers to the depression triggered by the stress of looking for work, and is a growing concern in discussions of the mental health of young people, particularly college seniors. A key factor is the practice of mass hiring of new college graduates, a uniquely Japanese style of career development. This hiring style is based on the assumptions of Japanese-style management, characterised by lifetime employment, seniority wage structure, and a utilitarian view of human capital. Making matters worse, gakureki filter, a method to screen applicants based on their university affiliation, used explicitly in the past but now more covertly, fuels confusion and a sense of hopelessness. The sense that life is a one-shot contest pushes many young people into a corner. More fundamentally, the gakureki filter raises profound questions about the true meaning of university education in Japan, if the four years of university education are not taken seriously while students are looking for work. This paper investigates the mechanism of one of the first critical rites of passage for college-educated youth in Japan, and how profoundly it affects their psychological health and perspective on their life ahead. It will suggest that Japanese social structure remains a stubborn barrier to self-actualisation and a heavy burden on the life choices of young people.
Keywords: Japanese youth, depression, job-hunting, university education, Japanese hiring style
“Professor, I cannot come to class next week because I’m scheduled to attend a company information session.” This refrain is heard repeatedly on Japanese university campuses, especially during the spring semester (the beginning of the Japanese academic year). Many college seniors, preoccupied with job-hunting, seem to see classes as a distraction from their real task: finding employment. Many take this priority so much for granted that when they find instructors unwilling to show leniency toward their absences, they are resentful or disappointed as if to say, ‘how dare you not allow it?’ In the final year, when they should be wrapping up their high academic learning toward a bachelor’s degree, nothing is more important than securing employment before they graduate. In the following few months, many will be offered jobs. For those who are not, frustration and distress mount along with the dread of being left behind. University faculty members resent this explicit disregard for students’ academic responsibilities. Many wonder what the point of university education is, except to help prep for a job. But they go along with this charade because they want their students to find work.
The culprit is the uniquely Japanese hiring practice ‘shin-sotsu ikkatsu saiyō,’ a-one-time massive hiring of new graduates every year. The job-hunting process is called shūkatsu, the first big step for college-educated youth to enter into the adult world of shakai-jin. This phrase, literally ‘a society (shakai) –person(-jin),’ is a common label for someone who has finished schooling and become a full-fledged, working member of society. It is a rite of passage to adulthood. And it marks a one-way with no turning back. Although any rite of passage can be stressful, accompanied by disappointments and setbacks, shūkatsu in Japan is particularly difficult, as the gap in social expectations between the pre- and post-shakai-jin world is wider than elsewhere. From their early 20s, students must decide how they will spend their work lives. If they stumble in this once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity, they feel they will be judged failures.
This paper investigates this critical rites of passage for college youth in Japan, how it affects their psychological health and perspective on their life ahead, and discusses how Japanese social structure remains as a barrier and imposes a heavy burden on their life choices. The paper stands on the biopsychosocial model of illness, and addresses the particular psychosocial condition which substantially contributes to the risk of illness through a certain life event (Bifulco, p.23-27, p.28-32).
The argument is based on systematic review of largescale surveys conducted by the Japanese government, smaller surveys conducted by NPOs, anonymous Internet discussion forums, and the analysis of reports by professionals involved in the job-hunting process of the young population, all of which were published no earlier than 2013. Inclusion criteria were their relevance to the key points, “How stressful the job-hunting experience is for university students,” and “how it can have a negative impact on their mental health, triggering depression which is labeled as ‘shȗkatsu-utsu.” The contents of the anonymous opinions on Internet sites were analysed through identifying the depth of their negative emotions expressed.
Japan has long had one of the highest suicide rates in the highly developed world. While middle aged or older men most commonly took their own lives in recent decades, the suicide rate among these men has gradually declined over the decade since 2010, and there has been an alarming rise in suicide among the young (Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, 2018). Today Japan is the only developed country in which the number one of cause of death by those aged 15 to 34 is suicide. Suicide anywhere signifies a loss of hope, both on the individual and societal level. It also implies a loss or weakening of the individual’s sense of being socially integrated, as the French sociologist Émile Durkheim suggested in the 19th century. In 2014, Japan’s Cabinet Office revealed the results of an international survey, which found that Japanese people aged 13 to 29 were much more lonely and much less hopeful for the future than people in the same age category in other countries (Cabinet Office, 2014)
Although substantial research has been done on the prevalence of clinical depression in Japan, and the government surveys (2017) conducted every three years since 1996 have also confirmed the steady increase of mental illnesses, especially in the ratio of mood disorder patients for the last 20 years, few studies have targeted this particular type of depression. However, the author believes, through her professional experiences of working closely with college students, that the job-hunting process has a decisive impact on their self-esteem and their future outlook on life. While complex sociocultural and economic factors need to be considered to understand such primarily quantitative survey results, it is obvious that the transition from youth to adult independence is a burden for many, and it is worth examining what happens to them and why it has to happen at this phase of life.
“I haven’t received any nai-tei (a company’s unofficial offer) yet. I am exhausted, and want to die.”
“…I want to quit everything and just disappear.… Each day, I am dying psychologically. But my body is alive, which is absurd.… and, I don’t have the courage to quit job hunting or even to kill myself. I am going tomorrow for another job interview just to fail… Everyday means despair.…”
“I failed in the final interview. I am exhausted. I want to die. There is no hope.”
(Kokotomo, 2017; Kokooru, 2015).
The Internet is a medium through which people throughout the world, often anonymously, confide their honest feelings, including those that cannot openly be discussed. Such desperate postings are fairly common in Japan. As a faculty member, I have repeatedly witnessed students struggle through this transitional period of their lives, including some who studied abroad and gained English fluency and who were eager to get into the traditional Japanese employment system.
In fact, recently the word "shūkatsu utsu," job-hunting depression, has begun to spread, like ‘postpartum depression,’ although, unlike the latter, it is not an official psychiatric diagnosis. Shūkatsu utsu is understood as a seriously depressive state among college students, right up to actual clinical depression caused by the intensive stress of failing to find a job. In worst-case scenarios, it can deteriorate into a state of hikikomori (long term social withdrawal) or even suicide (iQ Co. ltd., 2013).
The symptoms of shūkatsu utsu do not differ from those of typical clinical depression, which include depressive moods and high anxiety, lack of motivation, avoidance of contact with others, negative thinking, deterioration of cognitive abilities, and physical symptoms such as a loss of appetite and sleep. However, it is caused by excessive stress, specifically of failing to secure a job offer before graduation. The stress becomes increasingly intense if no job offer is obtained by a certain date, as peers pull ahead. The rate of suicide identified to be caused by job-hunting stress more than tripled, from 13 in 2007 to 45 in 2012 (iQ Co., ltd., 2013). Experiences of coercive and oppressive interview styles (sometimes used by recruiting interviewers in order to test applicants’ ability to tolerate stress) also triggered depression and social phobia in some students (iQ Co., ltd., 2013).
Lifelink, a Tokyo-based non-profit organisation that counsels suicide prevention, conducted a survey in 2013 targeting 243 young men and women, primarily undergraduate (and some) graduate students. The students described looking for work as ‘a solitary game you must join without understanding the rules,’ ‘mountain climbing with no goal in sight,’ ‘something which feels that it determines your whole life’ and ‘something that decides the future through suffering and luck.’ 21% of respondents said they seriously felt like dying or wanting to disappear during the job-hunting marathon (Lifelink, 2013).
The students also expressed a deep sense of distrust in Japanese society, saying there was nobody to help when they were in critical need. Many felt alone. They believed that the only way to protect themselves from this environment was to secure fulltime employment. Conversely, they felt that if they failed, life would no longer be worth living. This is an extremely narrow viewpoint based on an all-or-nothing thinking pattern for someone who is just starting life.
A more recent online survey targeting 515 college students who were scheduled to graduate in 2016, revealed that 83.7% already felt stressed before starting their job searching, and 95.9% were anxious if they would ever be able to get a job offer during the typical period when Japanese companies hire new graduates (PRTIMES, 2015).
A total of 397 Japanese college students committed suicide in 2017, according to the police. About 20% of those cases were caused by job-hunting related stress. The dramatic 3.5-fold rise between 2007-2012, is confirmed by another survey by Posse, an NPO that deals with work related issues of young people. The survey targeting 600 job-searching students suggested that one in seven was in a state of ‘shūkatsu utsu’ (Posse, 2010).
When any job application is rejected, it is only natural to feel disappointed, and when the rejection continues, self-esteem falls and self-confidence can be lost. These negative feelings might even create another situation that confirms students’ sense of failure as a self-fulfilling prophecy. After a while some feel helpless, feeling increasingly convinced that all further effort is wasted, so it is better not to even try. This is the state that psychologist Martin Seligman called ‘learned helplessness,’ a complete loss of hope for the future (Samuel, 1994). Thus, the job hunt in Japan can pose various mental health risks among youth, and sometimes very serious ones. This fact is increasingly being recognised only in recent years.
Why do these young Japanese feel so much despair? The privilege of being young is that they still have time and are allowed to fail and try again, but they seem to feel and behave as if there is little future beyond this point. They have a strong preconception that their entire future is determined in this short period of time before graduating from university. Even though this is not entirely true, they are very likely to hold such a view, and like anything else in life, they act on their perception and belief, then end up confirming it. Their view, though limited, is in fact a reflection of how the employment system functions in Japan. This system has long benefitted and supported Japan’s economic success.
Ebihara (2016) has argued that problems related to job searching can be reduced to the practice of massive hiring of new college graduates, a uniquely Japanese style of career development. This hiring style is also based on Japanese style management, characterised by lifetime employment and seniority wage structure (Sugimoto, 2014; Yano, 2013). Throughout the postwar economic growth period, getting a job in Japan meant gaining a secure position at a big employer, and stable employment has long been considered most important, regardless of what kind of work one actually does in the company.
This Japanese-style hiring practice stands in stark contrast to elsewhere. In the western hiring tradition, the job is clearly defined at the time of posting, and the employer looks for a worker who can fulfill that particular job description. In Japan, job descriptions are laid out or articulated more nebulously in advance, and the employer looks for a worker with basic, general abilities and (more importantly) the potential to fit into the corporate culture. The prestige of the applicant’s university and its ranking, not his or her own attributes, is the first assessment tool in determining this ‘basic ability’. Because concepts such as ‘future prospect,’ ‘compatibility with the company,’ or even ‘chemistry,’ are ambiguous criteria and difficult to assess objectively, applicants are left only anxious. But this has become the corporate justification for seeking out inexperienced young workers who can be trained and socialised to fit the company. Like a blank slate which can be drawn on in any way they want, corporations want to snag these youngsters as early as possible. This also creates a peculiar situation in which many other corporations compete for labour in a short time interval each year (Ebihara, p.16-18). Traditionally, the job-hunting period is concentrated in several months to a year, starting as early as when students are still in their junior year. Once they are seniors, the scramble for next year’s graduates officially kicks in. The process has the appearance of a decisive battle fought to a timetable, a make-or-break game for both sides.
The greatest benefit for workers in this system is job security. Because each position is not assigned strictly according to specific requirements, the employer is able to move workers around the company and rearrange their tasks in times of recession in order to make financial adjustments for the company. Vague job descriptions also offer to some workers the possibility of upward mobility within the company if they exceed expectations. The system makes it difficult for employers to fire workers simply to protect the financial bottom line. Thus, job security and vague hiring criteria are mutually beneficial—at least initially (Ebihara, p.86-103).
The other side of the coin is that industries have low expectations in higher educational institutions to provide specific training for their future jobs. Grades during the four years of university education are not important in this process. This ultimately lowers the motivation of students to achieve academic excellence. In fact, many of them care less about getting good grades as long as they can earn enough credits to graduate.
In general, the western approach is different. A candidate with no experience or practical skills will struggle to be hired. Screening job candidates is focused on specific skills for specific positions, and each job is available only when the position is vacant. This leaves a much smaller number of openings for young job seekers. As the vacant position within the company hierarchy is more or less fixed at the beginning, once the circumstances change and the position is no longer needed or justified, an employer can fire the worker who has been hired for the position earlier (Ebihara, p.112-114).
The competition for a better job typically seen in the United states is called the “job competition model,” while what is common in Japan is called “company competition model” which focuses on searching for a company to join (Yano, p.64). In a highly capitalistic western culture, the job security of workers is ultimately of little concern to employers. This type of job-specific hiring style does not provide equal opportunities for the newly hired for moving up, like in Japan. The internship system available for young, less experienced workers is also extremely competitive in these societies, and internships can be a source of exploitation. However, as there is no intention to hire the young at the same time in massive numbers, the timing of job opportunities is, in theory, open throughout the year or anytime during one’s occupational life (Ebihara, p.117-126).
Ebihara also states that there are pros and cons to these different approaches and warns against rushing to change Japanese-style hiring practices in response to the criticisms I have cited (p.157-174). It has been noted, for example, that opening the hiring spigot more widely to unexperienced, young people from the start has helped Japan to keep youth unemployment much lower than other OECD countries (GLOBAL NOTE, 2018).
However, one affect of the Japanese system is the underdeveloped job market for mid-career professionals. Even more problematic, a public perception has developed that unless one successfully gains entry into full employment upon graduation, life is almost over, or at least life chances become severely limited. The job market is changing, and businesses leaders increasingly caution that traditional Japanese-style management, particularly lifetime employment, will be difficult to sustain. Yet, despite the changing environment the belief in ‘one chance or nothing’ is still deeply rooted in Japan’s collective consciousness and does put young people who lose their biggest opportunity to find employment at a serious disadvantage (Yano, p.65). Furthermore, the optimism of the rapid economic growth era has long passed and young people today have grown up only seeing economic problems. This has made them increasingly cautious and conservative, and prodded many to opt for the safe path of getting into the secure employment system.
Japanese college students’ struggle with job hunting is nothing new. After all, this is one of many stressful phases of life in any developed, capitalistic society. It is also true that Japan’s millennials have been criticised for lacking the drive, tenaciousness, and capacity for hard work, qualities that defined previous generations. Having said this, their distress is justified and causes a growing number to suffer from psychological disorders. Mental health is often jeopardised by a sense of powerlessness. One factor behind this powerlessness is the so-called ‘gakureki filter.’
Gakureki filter—a crude social deception
Gakureki filter refers to the screening of applicants based on their academic background, or more precisely their university name. The filter has little to do with GPA or any accomplishments during four years of college life. It is a pre-interview technique used by many corporations when they have too many job applicants, as a way of selecting invitees to information sessions. These sessions are the first step offered by these corporations during the intense job-hunting season. They are followed by face-to-face interviews to decide new hires. In principle, companies are not allowed blatantly to discriminate against applicants based on their university’s prestige and ranking. Japan is supposed to be a meritocracy, so corporations rarely admit they are using this method. Because it is not discussed openly, even the question “does gakureki filter really exist or is it just an urban legend?’ is raised sometimes by applicants. But it does exist, and it is keenly felt by college student applicants on the frontline of the job-hunting battlefield (Toyokawa, 2018).
Like many highly industrialised societies, Japan has long been focused on credentialism. High educational background was considered the key to upward mobility. After world war two, high education started to be more accessible to the masses, raising the ratio of university-level enrollment, but the popular perception of university hierarchical rankings and prestige has remained solid as a rock. On the other hand, a cliché of Japanese university education is that students’ competitiveness and hard work peaks at the time of university entrance examinations, while it is relatively easy to graduate once in. This is believed to be particularly true for humanities and social science degrees. Transferring to another university is relatively rare, as is returning to university education later in life. Japanese university students are overwhelmingly aged from 18 to their early 20s.
In this way, the nationwide shūkatsu ritual starts every year. Companies launch the race to recruit the young and inexperienced fresh from school and the university name is still considered a good indicator of academic ability, or at least the ability they had at the time they were admitted to university. It was even once an accepted and open practice that large corporations recruited new employees only from a specific group of top-ranked universities. Therefore, the university from which one receives a diploma, not family or socioeconomic background, and not academic excellence in university, has had an overwhelming impact on the self-esteem of young people in Japan, because they are very well aware of where their university is ranked and also of how it can be a decisive factor in their future success.
Because too much emphasis on credentialism or university brands (not individual qualities) has been the target of criticism for some time, there have been some attempts to mitigate the impact. Thus, in 1991 Sony Corporation announced that it would not require college senior applicants to submit their university names, a decision welcomed as a positive step toward new hiring practices. It gave students enrolled in lower-ranked universities hope that by working hard at college they might be able to prove to that they were good enough for prestigious companies. Sony’s salvo was welcomed as the start of a new hiring culture.
Yet, by the beginning of the 21st century, many companies, including those that once declared they would not ask the applicant’s university name, had returned to the old way of hiring based on university ranking (Fukushima, 2018). The major reason is the advent of online registration (called shūkatsu Navigation), the first step of job-hunting. Today college senior job seekers are required to register their name, address, and university name on shūkatsu Websites in order to step into the job-hunting market and gain access to recruitment information. This is followed by numerous other steps, including more in-depth entries about personal information, and much later a series of interviews.
This new approach makes it easy for students to make the first entry into the job marketplace, and for employers to attract a large number of potential workers. It has the appearance of a system open to all, allowing everyone equal opportunities. As corporations today also want to project an image of themselves as fair and democratic employers to young people, it looks like a win-win for both sides. It would be ideal if companies could find bright and promising college seniors regardless of the ranking of their universities. There may well be those who lose out in Japan’s exam-focused pre-college education, but prove to be creative, innovative, and unconventional. However, the online system has invited an unfortunate consequence.
In practice, the number of initial applicants can be 1000 times larger than the number of job openings in a given company. Employers began returning to a time-honoured method of dealing with a tsunami of applicants: screening out applicants based on university names. Selecting from the pool of applicants from high ranked universities is again considered efficient (Fukushima, p.114-125). Human resource administrators also justify this approach by maintaining that through their experiences, they have consistently witnessed positive correlations between good student applicants who contribute to the company and their university affiliations. They also note that applicants from prestigious universities do very well in actual interviews, so it is reasonable to focus on applicants from top-ranked universities only. These are the honest feelings expressed by human resource administrators (Fukushima, p.88-112).
Yano also reports some Japanese companies’ personnel managers flatly say “knowledge from school is no use to companies. We don’t have any expectations concerning specialist knowledge from schools. What companies want is individuality, creativity and vitality, not knowledge” (p.68). Job-seeking college students are also well aware of this, and naturally, they lose enthusiasm for their studies.
It is said that some companies even drop applicants from lower-ranked universities, especially for managerial, career track positions. Screening out based on university names is more often adopted by large brand-name corporations and venture capital companies, but also occasionally by small to mid-sized businesses. This method is applied primarily to students majoring in social science or humanities, but usually not to those with science or engineering majors (Fukushima, p.71-73). The result of this screening process is obvious. Large, prestigious companies end up hiring graduates mostly from the best universities, recreating the same hierarchy in the post-education world.
It should be noted that this is a highly stressful process for companies too, which have much at stake in identifying competent and reliable employees. It may not be fair to blame them for using the most efficient method to secure the new generation of workers. The problem is that they do it covertly. The practice of selecting workers based on their universities can never be officially revealed for risk of damaging the corporate brand. Everyone has to share the false belief that Japan is a meritocratic society, in which the dream of upward mobility is ensured by open access to higher education. The problem is that the public perception of university hierarchies has never disappeared, and they are still used too often as an easy yardstick to measure a person’s value.
The LIFELINK survey (2013) cited earlier also reveals that applicants sense this deception. 70% said they are dissatisfied with the way employers treat them. The survey noted that when one student from a prestigious school asked for a reservation for a company job fair, he was invited while another one from a low-ranked school was misinformed that the seats were full. The number of interview opportunities also varies depending on the university name, as if different rules are adopted for different schools. Applicants have no way of knowing the details of this screening.
Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, the nation’s most powerful business lobby (made up of more than 1300 corporations and 100 group industries), has created a hiring guideline for member companies, and defined job-searching practices for college seniors. The guideline tells member companies to make their recruitment announcement in March and then to conduct job interviews from June. Even though the official recruiting is not supposed to start before the beginning of the applicants’ senior year, it is not unusual for companies to contact some target students long before the official date, and start their recruiting activities under the radar. Again, most applicants are unsure exactly when companies start actual recruiting. This lack of clear-cut rules only aggravates the students’ anxiety and confusion. Young Japanese have been brought up to believe that opportunities are equally open to all, so it is difficult for them to accept the existence of this invisible barrier when they are just beginning to enter the job market. In reality, it’s far from fair, and jobseekers on the receiving end of repeated rejections lose confidence and sometimes learn to distrust the entire system. The irony is that despite the apparently increasing democratisation of social opportunities, hiring in Japan seems to be regressing toward a more traditional, skewed path, and it is being done sneakily. Young applicants must make sense of this paradox.
Accepting the double standard?
Toyokawa (2018), a licensed career consultant, says that it is important to accept the fact that the gakureki filter does exist. He says that it has been a part of Japanese corporate culture for a long time, and it makes him wonder why it is being taken up as an issue today. However, in an era of growing social awareness of equal opportunities and diversity, companies must avoid the appearance of blatantly discriminating against applicants based on undemocratic criteria, so they have become more discreet, he says. There is a stubborn belief held among these company executives that those graduating from prestigious universities are most likely to be reliable workers. But since it takes years to determine whether this is true, the belief has become almost like a faith, sometimes without any basis. Furthermore, the number of students successfully recruited from a few top universities each year is a standard of accomplishment for in-house human resource administrators. Here again, the measurements they use when hiring applicants are hardly transparent. Because their priority is recruiting the best, they turn to gakureki, using university names as an easy, shortsighted solution, which implies a lack of creativity and flexibility on the hiring side (Toyokawa). It also endorses a vicious cycle of blocking opportunities for those who do not perform well in their late teens. Japan’s obsessive faith in university names continues and perpetuates later social statuses divided by university ranking.
Toyokawa also notes that many small and medium sized companies do not use the gakureki filter, and instead try to assess potential based on the applicant’s unique abilities. Moreover, these Japanese companies are more affected by the current labour crunch. Future graduates who are likely to be attracted only to big names of famous corporations, should be more realistic and look into this market, he says.
As Toyokawa notes, covert rules are a feature of every society. Figuring out how things actually work in real life may be a test of growing up. In Japan, this is expressed in the well-known paired phrase, tate-mae vs. honne: an official view that can be made public vs. a more private, honest view which cannot be expressed to outsiders. Again, this may not be unique to Japan. But out of a cultural emphasis on harmony and group cohesion, the distinction is particularly keen and significant. As they grow older, Japanese are expected to understand and accept this double standard in many areas of life, which is subtle at times, explicit at others. Not being able wisely to distinguish can be considered a sign of social immaturity. Yet, the extent to which the gakureki filter is covertly used in Japan might be considered rigged or even illegal elsewhere.
The underhanded and shameless use of the gakureki filter also raises a fundamental question: “What is university education for?” If four years of higher education are not taken seriously and if what matters, ultimately, is the name of the university, its potency as an agent for individual transformation must be seriously in doubt. Yano even calls job-seeking activities so severely restricted by the Japanese employment system and the university education an “overly stupid Japanese-style event” (p.66), and criticises it as “a pathological phenomenon that is far removed from international standards” (p.70).
Diminishing hope for the future?
Since the bursting of the bubble economy more than two decades ago and the onset of economic stagnation, a widening socioeconomic disparity has been a feature of life in Japan. On the other hand, faith in the role of higher education in upward mobility is growing stronger: more than half of Japan’s high school students go on to a bachelor of arts program today. But a society that operates on the basis of deception is bound to generate distrust in the entire system. This leads not only to a growing disparity in perceived opportunities and life chances but to reduced hope, which is the precondition for the onset of depression.
CR Snyder (1994), a psychologist of positive psychology, delineates the mechanism of how hope can emerge—or not. Hope is not acquired by simply learning to adopt an optimistic viewpoint, because simple optimism often attributes the reason for a failure to external factors. It does not require the person to reflect inwards. Hope cannot be gained by aggressive or often hostile A-type behaviours. Neither is it maintained by spending too much energy on raising positive emotions and self-esteem (p.15-20). According to Snyder, hope is the sum of mental willpower and what he calls “waypower” to achieve goals. Willpower is the driving force or the sense of mental energy that propels us toward our goals. Waypower is “the mental plans or road maps that guide hopeful thought” (p.8). What is also required is mental flexibility to allow the conception of alternatives if the original approach fails. Snyder says that “the perception that one can engage in planful thought is essential for waypower thinking” (p.8).
If we use Snyder’s formulation, distressed job-hunting students in Japan from low-ranked universities are faced with invisible walls that block or even destroy their mental waypower. They may have the will to reach their desired corporations but reality often brutally shuts down that route. Repeated experience of this barrier leads to a disheartened state, which only helps create another negative consequence akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Eventually, this state of learned helplessness may lead to resignation and despair. That’s fertile ground for mental health problems.
How many young people in their early 20s are so certain about their long-term goals? The privilege of being young is that they are allowed to make mistakes and try again in a world with open possibilities. Maybe a lucky few are already sure about what they want to do. But the message from the wider society is that unless you join the short, intense race to stable lifetime employment, you are a failure for life. Growing disparities in wages and social status between seiki (regular fulltime, secure employment) vs. hi-seiki (irregular, unstable unemployment) is making many young workers paranoid that once they miss the boat they will be stuck in the lower rung of society. Coupled with a society now marked by ever-expanding longevity and a shrinking population (and labour force), current hiring practices seem increasingly dysfunctional and maladaptive. In an era in need of more diversity and choices, Japan seems to be stuck in the past with regard to human capital. A society that drives the next generation into a corner ultimately destroys hope.
The government survey of 2018 revealed several warning signs in the social psychology of those aged 13-29 years in Japan, compared to, say, Korea, the United States, Germany, the UK, France, or Sweden. It revealed low self-esteem among Japanese, particularly those in their late teens to early 20s. They saw themselves in a much less positive light than young people from other countries. Less than half of Japanese youth responded that they were satisfied with themselves (while other countries polled up to 86%). Nearly 40% felt there was nothing good about themselves. Furthermore, Japanese youth were found to be more pessimistic. Only 60% responded that they had a hopeful vision of their future, well below the 80 to 90% recorded elsewhere. When asked whether they thought they would be happy by the age of 40 years old, Japanese youth scored the lowest (63.9%) (Cabinet office, 2019).
Again, it is not easy to grasp all the reasons for this gloomy outlook on life. But it is my speculation that hiring practices are a major contributing factor. The generation born after Japan’s economy peaked has grown up with relative decline, and sees businesses struggling to hold on to what they once had. Older generations are responsible for ensuring a sustainable society for themselves and the people below them. But this requires adjustment. It seems that life’s first big rite of passage is still haunted by old, outdated ways, and worse—double standards. The long-term, psychological consequence of this should not be underestimated.
A desperate message was posted online in 2016 by an anonymous writer, addressed to the Keidanren. It said: “Because of the job hunting rules you have decided, some students may commit suicide” (Hotelabo, 2016). The writer described how it felt to be left without a job offer while others had secretly received informal offers long before the Keidanren-ruled timetable. He wrote that he had long been told by adults that ‘there is no future for students who haven’t had a job offer by June,’ and ‘success in life is decided within these few months.’ He had believed in these words and put his whole soul into job-hunting. But having been rejected by so many companies, he said that he was burned out and had no more energy to go on, and so was thinking about killing himself. He ended the message by saying that what he learned through jobhunting was that he was a weak person, and not needed by society.
There have been growing criticism in recent years of the Japanese hiring system for not reflecting globalisation and the labour shortage, and for lacking flexibility. Keidanren has not ignored these criticisms. In the fall of 2018, the chairman of the organisation made a surprising announcement that it would no longer require member companies to follow recruitment guidelines that had stood for more than sixty years. The news caused a mixed response from college students: some welcomed it while others were confused about the disappearance of clear timelines (NHK WORLD, 2018).
But this reform only touches certain specifics of how new graduates are recruited, and it does not deviate from the fundamental premise that prospective employees must be fresh graduates. The assumption of strictly targeting people of a certain age will not be dispelled easily, thought it excludes job seekers with rich, diverse backgrounds and many who may have started developing their careers later. And it does not, of course, tamper with the most fundamental fact that many companies screen out applicants by university names.
It will take a very long time before Japanese hiring culture is transformed to accommodate truly more diverse workers who could make contributions that cannot be imagined within the present employment structure. This requires fundamental reform and a larger overhaul of Japanese corporate culture itself.
The COVID19 pandemic which broke out in early 2020 harshly affected Japanese businesses. The number of students who were happy to have acquired ‘naitei’ (the unofficial job offer), but were suddenly notified that the offer was retracted, had increased by five times compared to the previous year. (NHK News Web 2020). The downsizing of many businesses has already added another great challenge to job-seeking college students. The psychological burden they suffer under the pandemic has not yet been fully studied, but could be significant. While the entire economy is urged to make various adjustments in this unprecedented crisis, and the validity of existing systems is being questioned, this may be the time for the assumptions of Japan’s job-hunting culture to be questioned as well.
Right now, a critical issue is to stop sending the message that shūkatsu is a once-in-a-lifetime chance which cannot be failed or remedied. College seniors and young workers need to learn that life is not a one-shot contest. More guidance is needed to show that many companies focus not on the university name but on the qualities of the individual. It is the responsibility of the older generation to send the younger generation a message of hope, especially as we may be heading into the uncharted territory of our time.
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Article copyright Yuko Kawanishi.