electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 6 in 2007
First Published in ejcjs on 9 October 2007

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Thinking About Younger People's Employment in 21st Century Japan



PhD Candidate
School of East Asian Studies
University of Sheffield

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About the Author

Jō, Shigeyuki (2006) Wakamono wa Naze 3nen de Kaisha wo Yamerunoka? Nenkō Joretsu ga Ubau Nihon no Mirai, Tokyo: Kōbunsha.
ISBN: 978-4-334-03370-5, 231pp., no index.

Honda, Yuki, Asao, Naitō and Gotō, Kazutomo (2006) 'Nīto'  'tte Iuna!, Tokyo: Kōbunsha.
ISBN4-334-03337-7, 310pp., no index.


Wakamono wa Naze 3nen de Yamerunoka? Nenkō Joretsu ga Ubau Nihon no Mirai (Why do young people quit after three years? The seniority-based personnel management system deprives Japan of its future) and 'Nīto' 'tte Iuna! (Don't call them NEETs!) both discuss current youth employment issues in Japan. In the former, Shigeyuki Jō picks up the recent increase in the numbers of younger people who are leaving their companies within three years and, in the latter, Yuki Honda and her colleagues criticise the recently popularized concept of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) in Japan. While the former book analyses issues surrounding mainly younger regular employees in companies, the latter focuses on younger people who are, for one reason or another, currently out of the employment market. In both volumes we can find a common concern (or criticism) of the continued prevalence of conservative perceptions of society, where members try to exclude people who have different values and perceptions or who have chosen paths outside of the mainstream. In addition, the authors critique current discussions which have a tendency to push the blame for youth unemployment and under-employment onto younger people themselves, rather than by looking also at the influence of the political economy and by analysing the overall situation in relation to the employment of middle-aged and older people. Thus we can feel the authors' anger directed against the traditional employment systems and older people in Japan, and against the negative campaign conducted by conservative interests against younger people which have deprived them of opportunities for creating their own careers.

Why do younger people quit their companies after three years?

The underlying theme of Wakamono wa Naze 3nen de Yamerunoka? is author Shigeyuki Jō's argument that there has been a resurgence of 'Shōwa teki kachikan', or Shōwa era values, in Japanese society, where companies' 'name value' and social trust are appreciated, and where there is a greater emphasis on stability rather than trying to surmount challenges. Jō explains that the centre of this value system is the nenkō joretsu (seniority-based) system in Japanese companies. Moreover, every interested actor, except younger people, supports this social and economic system in order to secure their vested interests. By presenting supporting data and arguments the author tries to encourage younger people to abandon the conservative system and to develop the freedom to choose their own career and life paths.

Jō tries to analyse reasons why younger people leave their companies so quickly. According to a survey, 42% of newly hired graduates preferred companies which maintain seniority-based personnel management practices. However, paradoxically, the number of younger employees who have quit their companies has increased. Companies criticise younger people by using terms such as 'wagamama' (selfish) and 'nintaibusoku' (impatient) (pp.29-32). The author disagrees with these companies' reasoning on the basis that there has been a change in students' attitudes. Jō argues that current graduates think about work and occupational choices more seriously than before, as companies seek to hire people with specific interests and expertise rather than hire adaptable generalists. However, Japanese companies still cling to seniority-based personnel management practices, the consequence of which is mismatches between new employees' expectations and the reality of their employment. According to Jō, even the seikashugi (performance-based personnel management) system has been run within the basic framework of the seniority-based employment system.

Jō also warns younger people that although companies still maintain the seniority-based system in order to preserve older people's vested interests, there will be a sudden disappearance of promised career paths in the future. This is because the current seniority-based personnel management system has reached the limits of its own sustainability, as corporate growth slows down. Consequently, in many companies future opportunities will be severely curtailed when younger people enter their thirties. Indeed, already many people in their thirties have begun suffering from mental illnesses brought on by anxieties about their future employment opportunities.

Jō extends his analyses to the issue of the increase in non-regular employment and argues that this problem is rooted in the same soil as younger people's unemployment and under-employment. Both companies and the government, and even unions, have caused the current shift towards an increase in the proportion of non-regular employees in order to protect the employment of older generations. While regular employees work harder and longer due to decreases in their own numbers, increasing numbers are working under harsh conditions as non-regular employees. The biggest reason why younger people are excluded from employment, regardless of the status of that employment, is that the decision makers – which includes unions, political parties and business leaders – are all ensconced within organisations founded on the seniority-based system, and which itself is run by older people. Jō bitterly criticises the government, which he argues has merely been postponing the problem of social security expenses by issuing bonds. Even though older people say 'you need to be patient while you are young', there is actually little hope for the current generation of younger people for their future. In addition, the author criticises the difficulty of living within the Japanese social and employment systems whereby, if for any reason one falls off the rails, it is next to impossible to jump back on. Jō passionately argues that this kind of system should definitely be broken up in favour of one that gives younger people a greater degree of hope for the future.

In this vein, the author states that the education system and corporate culture have also produced generations of obedient sheep, who work hard without questioning why or what for. The nationality once described by Ruth Benedict (1946) in terms such as: 'Japanese people find happiness in fulfilling one's obligation' and 'Japanese people fear most to face unexpected situations' seems to have been rather strengthened in recent years. Even though younger people were motivated to work at the beginning, their motivations are gradually replaced with 'working' itself (i.e. the desperate desire simply to remain on the rails). In sum, the personnel management system in Japan lays down a rigid seniority-based rail-track of career advancement, forcing its employees to work harder than anyone else in the world, all in exchange for 'stability'. There is no let-up for those that remain on the rails, and those that fall off or get off are never allowed back on.

Jō summarises his arguments by referring to Hobbes's 'Leviathan'. Unions blame management for wanting to abandon seniority-based personnel management systems; and management demands further deregulation in the name of maintaining competitiveness in the international economy. Opposition parties attribute widening gaps to government policies; the government postpones solving the nation's problems in order to dodge responsibility; and the media is always an advertisement pillar for 'Shōwa teki kachikan'. All of these actors look like they are confronting each other; however, they are all derived from the same Leviathan. Jō maintains that the traditional Shōwa teki kachikan deprives younger people of their future, and claims that it actually serves to destroy the traditional social, employment and political systems that are founded on precisely these values.

Don't call them NEETs!

The central argument in 'Nīto' 'tte Iuna! surrounds those younger people who are reputed to be NEET, or those 'Not in Education, Employment or Training'. Since the early 2000s, the term NEET has often appeared in media reports in Japan, though the authors argue that the ways in which NEETs are described in Japan is not correct – that rather the expression contains incorrect assumptions and has led people's understanding and government policy making in the wrong direction.

Three authors, Honda, who is an educational sociologist; Naitō, a sociologist; and Gotō, a university student, argue that NEET discourses have placed the responsibility for problems of youth employment in Japan on younger people themselves and their families instead of focusing on responsibilities from the demand side of labour and the peculiarity of youth employment in Japan. Subsequently, those discourses seek solutions for cures and younger people's rehabilitation into mainstream society. In these discourses, NEETs are depicted as ugly, corrupted, diseased and weak. Even statistical data are padded, and emphasise discomfort and worries towards younger people. The term NEET thus became a symbolic of being a 'dud', and is different from the original definition.

In the first part of the book, Honda proposes the inappropriateness of the concept of NEET, and urges a reconsideration of the current situation, by presenting gaps between discourses on NEET and real images of youth who are categorised as NEET. Honda points out that the number of NEETs has not increased as much as is commonly thought; the increase in the number of furītā (freeters: younger people in part-time shifting employment, Honda 2004: 110) and unemployed people who want to work but are currently not seeking jobs has indeed surged dramatically. But even among so-called NEET, there are many sub-types, such as those proceeding on to higher education, home helpers, the ailing, family carers, those preparing for work in the entertainment industry, and those preparing for marriage. Honda also argues that due to the emergence of the term NEET and classifications based on this term, discourses simplify the diverse situations among younger people, and evaluate individuals simply on whether they are trying to find regular work in the formal economy. The fundamental problem actually lies on the demand side, where recruitment of new graduates has been curbed. However, the focus of the argument has been switched to discussions over the responsibilities of younger people on the supply side. Honda proposes a review of the recruitment system led by schools for high school students, a change in companies' attitudes towards the recruitment of freeters, and improvements to vocational and occupational education in schools.

In part two of 'Nīto' 'tte Iuna!, Naitō critically analyses a social structure which has produced negative discourses on youth and NEET. Naitō argues that three groups or phenomena collaborate with each other to form the current moral panic. These are: the deliberate agitation by the mass media which depicts negative and fearful images of children and younger people; the public who hold negative images toward youngsters, trying to find 'signs' of suspicion in order to create anxiety and animosity; and politicians riding through the fuss in order to carve out their intended social structure by creating anti-civil policies and bills which would not have passed in previous years. By comparing media reports on present-day violent crime with the past, and by examining changes in the numbers of these crimes, Naitō highlights peculiarities in current media reportage. Naitō claims that atrocious crimes committed by younger people such as murder and rape have actually dramatically decreased. The author suggests that current NEET discourses support the strengthening of a public ethos which regards education and work as the core of the 'human condition', and excludes people who cannot meet these conditions and removes their personal dignity.  Using concepts from psychoanalysis, Naitō also warns against people's adoption of 'projective assimilation', i.e. the projection of part of the self into another so that one can live within and control that person, as can be seen in adults' attempts to educate younger people. In addition, the author points out a tendency among adults who cannot accept uncertainties arising from the diversity of people and their ways of living. Naitō proposes an alternative matured 'Jiyū na Shakai' (Free Society), where individuals respect differences and ambiguities in others and their ways of living. The NEET issue is thus reduced to a discursive tool that highlights an immature and conservative Japanese society.

Gotō, who is still a university student, examines various discourses on NEETs in Japan. The author's exploration started with his personal interests in and questions about the actual numbers of serious and shocking crimes committed by younger people which, contrary to hysterical media reporting, has decreased since the 1960s. Consequently Gotō pays more attention to the media's discursive style rather than the actual crimes or so-called 'problematic behaviours' among younger people. Gotō examines the related discourses of parasaito shinguru (parasite singles: young unmarried adults living off their parents) and shakaiteki hikikomori (social withdrawal); the expansion of the early NEET discourse centring on studies by Genda and Kosugi (for example Genda and Maganuma (2004); Sankei Shimbun (2004)), media reports including weekly magazines, newspaper columns, books and monthly magazines; and finally ways in which the term 'NEET' is used in Japan. By looking at each case, Gotō criticises the underlying tone of authors' 'youth bashing' (pp.220-303). He argues that current discussions on 'NEET' are reduced to the causes of young people's psychological problems or parents spoiling their children, instead of considering labour policies or in-depth discussions on ways of living.

In the postscript to the book, Naitō concludes that the phenomenon of NEET and discourses surrounding it present an interesting case study of spreading disgust in society of younger people, and which highlights the foundational flaws in Japanese society. Throughout the book, the three authors warn us not to believe in a campaign which spreads harmful concepts like NEET, and which target specific groups in society. They argue that we should instead examine and understand these social issues more carefully and in relation to each actor's particular interests.

Beyond employment

In these two books, each author deploys a forthright and determined writing style. Jō keeps the same tone adopted in his first book (2004), which critiques inefficiencies in the introduction of the seikashugi (pay-per-performance) personnel management system. He turns his eyes from focusing on the inside of the organisation to the employment market and the present responsibilities of older people who have tried to maintain an already inefficient seniority-based personnel management system, and who have exploited young people's labour for their own survival. Honda, Naitō, and Gotō, on the other hand explicitly criticised people and organisations that have been responsible for the establishment of the prevalent perceptions of NEET, a term which has come to symbolise and represent younger people's perceived defects. Moreover, the responsibility of media reports which led people to believe these images, and to criticise and tease younger people, is also strongly criticised.

The authors' arguments may be indeed controversial. For instance, the introduction of seikashugi has not been completed in many Japanese companies, and its results are still difficult to evaluate (see for example Takahashi (2004) and Nakamura (2006)). Jō criticised the ways in which seikashugi was introduced at his former employer in his last book. As mentioned above, he emphasises again that even seikashugi continues to operate within the framework of a seniority-based personnel management system. Considering the fact that many managers and researchers are striving to develop better personnel management systems, Jō's claim may sound too simplistic and too harsh. In the case of Nīto' tte Iuna!, the authors seek to challenge other academic researchers and the mass media.

In this regard, a significant achievement of Honda et al's book is that it challenges media reportage and its manipulation of public opinion. Naitō further explores a society which tolerates such manipulation, and the spiteful behaviour being directed at younger people in Japan. Although the main subject of the book is employment, he intermingles this with discussions on popular sentiments and politics. Naitō's analyses give us an opportunity to consider seemingly simple social issues by looking at various actors' intentions and to understand the complexities of the issues.

Another point which should be emphasised is that all authors describe the limitations of conservative social norms, the management system and government policies. Moreover, they depict people's sense of stagnation. There are so many rules which control and restrict people's behaviours in Japanese society and, as Naitō argues, Japanese society tends to eliminate people who have different values and opinions from the conservative norm, and people who do not behave according to set rules. Consequently, people who cannot adopt these rules accumulate stress and fatigue in their lives, losing their sense of happiness, hope and motivation, while people who try to preserve conservative rules protect and defend themselves by continuously eliminating the different 'other'. The authors therefore challenge us to consider whether it may be time to change the conservative values and social structure in Japan if we are really concerned about the future of the country and its people.

Even though the authors' arguments contain some controversial perceptions, they are valuable in so far as they push discussions forward – especially in terms of developing effective policies in the field of younger people's employment. All the authors place serious challenges at the feet of the decision makers in Japanese society and its political economy. The authors ask us to think about social phenomena from a much broader perspective and as such ask us to question the bases of our own assumptions about what it means to be young and employed in contemporary Japanese society.

Both Wakamono wa Naze 3nen de Yamerunoka? and 'Nīto' tte Iuna!, are informative and useful for many types of readers. The books ask us to think about employment and social issues from various points of view. Problems among younger people such as serious criminal behaviour and unemployment have been attracting much attention outside of Japan too, such is in the UK, and the analyses of youth employment and society in Japan presented by the two books may also be valuable for people in other countries. After reading these two books, more people may think seriously about our society's and young people's future.


Benedict, Ruth (1946) The Chrysanthemum and the Sward, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Genda, Yūji and Maganuma, Mie (2004) Nīto: Furītā demo Naku Shitsugyōsha demo Naku (NEET: neither Freeter nor Unemployed), Tokyo: Gentōsha.

Honda, Yuki (2004),The Formation and Transformation of the Japanese System of Transition from School to Work, Social Science Japan Journal, 7 (1): 103-15.

Jō, Shigeyuki (2004) Uchigawa kara Mita Fujitsū: Seikashugi no Hōkai (The Inside of Fujitsu: The Collapse of the Performance Based Management), Tokyo: Kōbunsha.

Nakamura, Keisuke (2006) Seikashugi no Shinjitsu (The Truth about Seikashugi), Tokyo: Tōyō Keizai Shimpōsha.

Sankei Shimbun (2004) Hatarakanai Wakamono 'Nīto',10nen de 1.6bai: Shūshoku Iyoku Naku Oya ni 'Kisē' ('NEET', Young People Who Don't Work, Increased 1.6t imes in 10 years: No Motivation for Getting Employed, Living with Parents as 'Parasites'), May 17.

Takahashi, Nobuo (2004) Kyomō no Seikashugi: Nihongata Nenkōsei Fukkatsu no Susume (Seikashugi as Shame: A Recommendation to Restore the Japanese-style Seniority Based System), Tokyo: Nikkei BPsha.

About the Author

Kuniko Ishiguro is a PhD candidate at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. She gained an MSc in East Asian Business from Sheffield in 2003 and is now conducting research into women and management in Japan. In addition, prior to gaining her MSc, she worked for many years in Japanese and American companies as a human resource manager. Her research interests include the development of human resource management strategies, sociology of work, career development, organisational behaviour and gender relations in organisations. She is especially interested in comparing Japan and other developed countries. Her recent research update can be referred in 'Generating Equal Employment Opportunities for Female Managers: Balancing Work and Life in 21st Century Japan' Social Science Japan, 34 (2006): 19-21.

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Copyright: Kuniko ISHIGURO
This page was first created on  9 October 2007. It was last modified on 15 October 2007.

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