TOKYO >> Japan is in the midst of en masse hiring season, when a wave of college graduates join companies in formal ceremonies after sweating through the job interview gantlet.
While this year’s ritual has a different look, with COVID-19 forcing many companies to scale back or go online, the goal has long been the same: to kick off what was often a lifetime devoted to one company. In exchange for long hours, personal sacrifices and a prescribed career path, employees would receive job security, a salary and status that rise with age, and the honor of contributing to corporate glory.
But this model that undergirded Japan’s economic rise is slowly eroding. Employers have been whittling away at the system for years, arguing that greater flexibility will improve competitiveness. And now, with the pandemic, pressure is building from the other side: Working from home, people have had more time to rethink their careers and lives. Many want a change.
For some the objective is more say on when and where they work, as well as more autonomy and control over their careers. “Ikigai,” or purpose for living, has become a buzzword.
Now a growing number of workers are considering switching jobs — nearly 9 million, government data shows. And some are jumping ship, a risky and somewhat unusual step in Japan, especially for those in their 40s, 50s and 60s with stable jobs and families that rely on them.
Among young employees the percentage who quit jobs at major companies within three years has risen to 26.5% from 20.5% eight years ago, according to a study by the Recruit Works Institute, a research group.
“COVID has triggered a big awakening: Do we need to keep working the same way?” said Kennosuke Tanaka, a professor of career studies at Hosei University. “It’s proving to be a turning point for Japan.”
Takahiro Harada, 53, is among those who have made the leap, taking early retirement in 2021 from Dentsu, a high-powered advertising company, to start his own personal coaching business.
More Japanese have been trying new lines of work as the gig economy has grown — some to offset lost income during the pandemic and others to test whether they want to make a career change.
“For the first time, I really thought about who I am, my self-identity,” Harada said. “I wasn’t finding a lot of purpose in my job. I realized I was only choosing from the options my company gave me, not really doing what I wanted.”
Over the years, Harada had noticed that people often approached him for advice and that he felt emotional whenever they expressed gratitude. It was only in 2021 that he realized he needed to act on that sense of fulfillment.
“I had been mulling starting my own business, but COVID pushed me to actually take that step,” he said.
Japan’s traditional workplace model may have worked well during the postwar recovery and the 1980s “Bubble Era,” when a famous jingle for a health drink asked corporate warriors, “Are you able to fight 24 hours?”
But it’s outdated now, Harada said, a constraint both on workers and Japan’s long-stagnant economy.
Some businesses are shifting from the traditional “membership” corporate model, in which employees are essentially owned by the company and moved around from job to job and often city to city without much consultation, to a “self-directed” or “job” model that links employees to specific expertise and gives them a more active role in charting their careers.
“We’ve entered the age in which individuals can choose their futures,” said Masato Arisawa, head of human resources at the juice and sauce maker Kagome, one of the more proactive companies in this regard. “We are focused more on attracting talent than retaining it.”
Kagome has eliminated its seniority pay scale and compensates employees largely on performance. While the company still offers lifetime employment, it doesn’t pressure workers to stay or treat those who leave as traitors. If they return, they are welcomed back.
“Employees shouldn’t be expected to give their entire lives to one company,” said Arisawa, 61, who himself has worked at four businesses.
Granting employees greater ownership over their careers could lift Japan’s historically low worker engagement levels. Gallup’s 2021 “State of the Global Workplace” report found that only 5% of Japanese workers said they felt involved and enthusiastic in their jobs, one of the lowest rankings in the world.
Ryuya Matsumoto, 38, who is married with two daughters, was one of those who did change jobs. He left a major insurance company in August, mainly because he wanted a job that gave him more family time and international interaction.
During the pandemic his job didn’t allow for much telework, and he was often away from home until late. His wife, who was also working, wanted him to help more at home.
He joined an intensive 10-week class offered by Project MINT, a company started in 2020 to help people seek purpose in their lives. “‘Family’ emerged as a key word,” Matsumoto said.
What pushed him over the edge were orders from his company to relocate to Sendai, 215 miles north of Tokyo. Fed up, Matsumoto quit after landing a job at the consulting firm Accenture that allows him to work from home full time and gives him the international exposure he craved.
“My former boss came to me about five times to ask me to reconsider leaving,” Matsumoto said. “But I’m happy in this new job.”