electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies
Book Review 5 in 2010
Japanese Workplaces in Transition?
Much has been written by western scholars on the Japanese employment system since James Abegglen published The Japanese Factory: Aspects of its Social Organization in 1958. Some of this scholarship has made the claim that the system is either on the point of collapse or has already been 'transformed' into a new type of working organization such that one can no longer talk in any meaningful sense about 'Japanese-style management' or 'lifetime employment'.
Yet, very long term, even lifetime, employment at a single organization continues to exist as an economic and social institution, or norm, for certain classes of employees among most of Japan's largest and most prestigious employers. Average tenure for all company employees in Japan currently stands at 11.8 years, with 45.5 per cent of all company employees being employed for more than ten years. These figures are exceeded only by France and Italy among western industrialized countries, and if one breaks the figures down by gender and company size they reveal that average employment tenure by Japanese males in organizations of more than 1,000 employees stands at approximately 16 years per employee (JILPT, 2009: 60). Yet, a 1996 OECD study had earlier found that average employment tenure in Japan was 11.3 years for the 1985-95 decade that spanned the height of the economic bubble and its collapse (Cited in EPA, 1999: 292) and, more tellingly, in a 1995 study of 4,063 respondents employed by companies of the more than 1,000 workers by the NKSKK (1995), average tenure among male university graduates had stood at 15.2 years. Indeed, approximately 94 percent of employees in the NKSKK study, with of an average age of 38.9 years, were either working at the employer they had originally joined on graduation or had only changed employer once, most probably in the early years of their careers. Although the NKSKK data is now rather dated, there is little to suggest that this situation has substantially altered since, if anything, the national level data implies that employment tenure among this group of employees may have actually lengthened in the intervening period.
Some of the small increase in employment tenure in Japan over the past couple of decades that one can observe in the above figures can be explained simply by the ageing of the labour force and has little to do with conscious personnel management decision-making among employers. However, what one cannot conclude from these figures is that very long term, or lifetime, employment of male university graduates has 'collapsed' or 'disappeared', as some scholars have in the past been tempted to state. Indeed, lifetime employment among this group of employees continues to be the norm and, as far as one can predict into the future, will continue to be so for some years. Nevertheless, and in terms of Japan's employment structure, what has changed over the past three or four decades is not so much the preparedness of Japan's larger employers to offer very long term employment to male university graduates (and the preparedness of said graduates to take up such an offer), but the preparedness of employers to fabricate short-term sticking plaster solutions to the various challenges that they face, and seek to pass on the consequences of such actions onto wider society and the economy. We are as yet unable to judge what the consequences of such an approach to organizational management will be, however we might predict that they will not be conducive the long term employment stability and organizational survivability.
Hendrik Meyer-Ohle does not fall into the trap of judging small and relatively temporary changes in employment patterns to be major and long-term transformations of the Japanese employment landscape. Instead, what he does observe are the interconnected factors that are serving to create the appearance that both corporate and employment stability in Japan are weakening. First is a perception among employees that the ethos and structure of Japan's corporate community is under pressure from the restructuring of operations, greater instability in customer demand, and changes in the systems of evaluation of employee performance that value short term quantifiable results ahead of the knowledge acquisition and team building that are achieved through long term tenure and its associated system of seniority. Second is an increase in the size of the contingent workforce and its importance to company operations and the wider economy, which is also serving to increase anxieties among all types of employees as they seek the security and stability of a long term employment agreement. Although the latter is both a consequence of the secular change in the composition of the Japanese labour force as well as a conscious decision by Japanese management to reduce labour costs, the consequence has been to exacerbate the anxieties that many Japanese workers share of being unemployed or of being consigned to a lifetime of living and working on the periphery of society.
As implied above, Meyer-Ohle's book is divided into two parts. The first examines regular employees' perceptions of changes to the corporate system and, more specifically, the above mentioned move towards rewarding employees according to numerical indicators of current performance rather than their overall contribution to the long term survivability of the organization. The second part of the book looks at contingent workers' perceptions of their own employment circumstances and the poor rewards that come with this type of employment. The primary significance of this study within the overall literature on the Japanese employment system is not so much that the author offers us unique and hitherto unstated analyses of employment systems and circumstances in Japan, but that Meyer-Ohle offers an unusual methodology to support his research. The book is based upon a careful qualitative analysis of internet diaries, or blogs, written by Japanese employees about their employment experiences. This method provides the reader with a rare opportunity to listen to the original voices of Japanese employees who write (one assumes) solely for the purpose of recording events in their lives and for stating their opinions and feelings about their situations. As such I was rather sceptical of this method of data collection and analysis, but Meyer-Ohle supplements it with a wealth of secondary data and documents to provide simultaneously micro and macro interpretations of contemporary developments. On the positive side, the blogs reveal an unusual depth of insight among employees about their circumstances, and a well-thought out and careful sense of balance in their judgments. One is occasionally left wondering whether this methodology might lack some rigour, given that one might expect a good proportion of blog writers to be of a rather more contrarian nature than those who do not see the need to commit their feelings about their employment circumstances to public view over the internet. However, the more I read the blog extracts the more convinced I became of the qualitative value of an approach that examined employee perceptions unencumbered and unmediated by researcher's questions and interventions.
Overall, one comes away from this study with the feeling that the Japanese employment system is ever so slowly disintegrating from within. The book tells a story of employers seeking temporary and superficial solutions to fundamental contradictions existing within a corporate system which is built upon the principles of company as community, organizational effectiveness, and long term survivability, but which must operate within a globalizing capitalist culture of selfish individualism, unrelenting pressures to achieve optimal efficiency, and short term profit-taking. So far, and unlike some western countries, Japan has been able to resist some of the worst excesses of the latter; but for how long?
Abegglen, James (1958) The Japanese Factory: Aspects of its Social Organization, Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Economic Planning Agency (EPA) (1999) Economic Survey of Japan 1998-1999: Challenges for Economic Revival, Tokyo: Economic Planning Agency.
Japan Institute of Labour Policy and Training (JILPT) (2009) Labour Situation in Japan and Analysis: General Overview 2009/2010, Tokyo: JILPT, Accessed: 2 February 2010.
Nihongata Koyō Shisutemu Kenkyū Kai (NKSKK) (1995) Hōkokusho, Tokyo: Nihongata Koyō Shisutemu Kenkyū Kai
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