A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being accompanied to Japan by some of the greatest talent professionals in our industry. All I can say is WOW. Just WOW! Aside from the beautiful places that we were able to visit during our HR Japan Delegation journey under the leadership of Gerry Crispin and China Gorman, I learned so much about Japanese work, life, and culture. I was also able to sneak in some fun, learn a little bit of Japanese, make & eat sushi (I’m still trying to stomach that), wear a yukata (jumbo size), and make some new friends.
Work life in Japan
I’ll share some of the fun highlights, but first, let’s talk about work. “The best husband is a non-existent, healthy husband.” Yes, that is a real phrase that the Japanese use. Did you know that Japan has some of the longest working hours in the world? Unfortunately, some Japanese workers literally work themselves to death. As a matter of fact, Japanese men will work until the last train home. It’s not unusual to start work early in the morning and leave the office at 10pm or even midnight. And the commute? Sometimes it’s 2 hours each way. What’s even more disturbing is that because Japanese work culture is so intense, a word was invented in the 1970s to describe death attributed to overwork – “karoshi.” After meeting with our new friends at Recruit Works Institute, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and JSHRM representatives, we learned about Japanese hiring practices, present and future situation in employment systems, college recruiting, and some steps that Japan may be taking to make a change.
Another interesting point was what I learned after a visit to Hitotsubashi University while meeting with MBA students. There is a distinctive characteristic in the Japanese labor market called “lifetime employment.” What does that mean? Both employer and employee understand that there is a mutual contract that guarantees lifetime employment. No written contract required. When asking students what they wanted to do upon graduation, they all said that they wanted to join a large company regardless of the role. They were very surprised when we told them about the frequent job changes of US employees and that “job hopping” is not unusual. However, in Japan, job tenure is remarkably long. How does it work? Large Japanese companies hire workers right out of school and keep them employed until retirement (now 65 years of age). New employees are hired for their general knowledge, not because of any special skills or training. As a matter of fact, Japan spends an obscene amount of money on training new employees. These new employees are retained to work in a role that is best suited for the company’s interest, not them.
Gender issues in Japan
And women? They typically enter the workforce just like the men. However, their departure from work is usually attributed to the challenges they face in balancing their jobs and family needs. A woman typically leaves a company because she will have a difficult time balancing the demands of her children, housework, and elder care. Although the thought is for them to return back to work, they seldom do so because their career progression is interrupted. This is why Japanese women usually take on part-time or temporary work which is often underpaid.
From the discussions we had, it seems that the government is aware of this rising problem and that they are taking steps in the right direction to try and make a change but with the decrease of Japanese employees joining the workforce, I’ll be curious to see if and how quickly things will move in the upcoming years. I will also be interested to learn more about what employers will do to make a shift in workforce development and how HR can play a bigger role on improving productivity and not relying on long working hours. There were some talks of leveraging HR technology and AI but I think that’s many, many years away.
Now, Japanese life and culture? For me, it was great! Actually, it was amazing! But remember, we were there as a tourists so aside from the great business intellect we were able to acquire, we also did some fun stuff like visit the Imperial Palace and the Tokyo Skytree. The weather was amazing so we were able to take some great photos of the (outside) primary residence of the Emperor of Japan and the incredible views of Tokyo at 450 meters high. Did somebody say tea, temple and shopping? We also visited Asakusa Kannon Temple, one of Tokyo’s most colorful and popular, followed by shopping on Nakamise street and a traditional tea ceremony. And more…the amazing views of Mt. Fuji, lunch in Hakone, a cruise on Lake Ashi, the Komagatake Ropeway, and our amazing homestay in Chiba Prefecture. Last but not least, chicken-on-a-stick, known as Yakitori followed by a very entertaining evening at The Robot Restaurant. Would I go again? Absolutely! Zettai ni 絶対に
Arigato Gozaimasu, Japan! ありがとうございました