Getting Ahead in Japan

What does it take to ‘get ahead’ in Japan? More than anything it means that you graduated from the right university. At the top of the pack is Tokyo University (東大 pr./tow-dai/ — short for 東京大学 pr. /Tow-kyou Dai-gaku/). If you have aspirations to work as a “Komuin” or government official, graduation from todai, and the contacts and networking that come with it are a must. So, you’ve graduated from a top tier university, and then what?

The most successful students will probably have secured their jobs in corporate Japan even before they graduated. Large prestigious organizations scout out the best and brightest talent through their alumni association while they are still in school. Competition is fierce (on both the student and corporate sides).

Having been selected for employment in a big corporation, you will start working there immediately after you graduate. (No ‘year off to see Europe by bicycle’). It is considered highly undesirable to have any slack period between graduation and entering an organization.

Although organizations in Japan vary greatly in their cultural details, one thread of commonality between them is the importance of relationships and of having deep organizational knowledge. Just as in the West, the most successful people in an organization will be the ones with the best network of connections, and the most complete picture of how things work in the organization. The difference in Japan is that these people are highly likely to be “pure company men” (純正社員) pr /joon-sei-sha-in/. This means that they entered the company at graduation, did company training, and have committed their lives to the organization. In the West, the most successful executives typically gained their status by working hard a series of companies for several years at a time, ‘job-hopping’ to other companies in order to be promoted to new pay and rank levels. The story of the CEO that started in the mail room is a popular one, but it is the exception rather than the rule. This pattern is almost unheard-of in Japan.

The most successful employees in Japan will demonstrate a set of qualities that are valued by the organization, although what these qualities are may be very hard to determine if you are not a decision maker. I have been part of conversations where it has been remarked that “Mr. A” for example is really the type that the company likes (会社の好きなタイプ) pr ./kai-sha-no-sooki-na-tai-pu/. People just know that Mr. A is bound for good things in the company, although it may be hard to put a finger on why. People often just have a feeling that it is bound to be so. A reserved bearing, charisma, and tall stature in addition to job competence are typical factors. (Just like in America.)

A point of difference in what constitutes a ‘high flyer’ in Japan is that individual achievement is somewhat de-emphasized. While individual accomplishment is respected, and a requirement, rewards and recognition rarely get applied below the team level. Most times, the basic unit that succeeds or fails in any task is the team. It is rare for one individual to be singled out for censure if a task fails.

Further, since lifetime employment is the norm, Japanese organizations have a different toolset for managing performance as compared to Western companies. First off, pay and promotion are primarily a function of how much time you have spent with the company. Since most people start with the company at similarly young ages (except Phd students), an employee’s age generally maps to how long they have been with the firm. An employee will see a reasonably predictable trajectory through the organization through the 20’s and 30’s. Sometime in the 30’s, however, some employees may get a bump above their peers and get promoted one step faster. It is at this time that people begin to realize that they may be among ‘the elect’ or may be passed over for promotion to the highest ranks.

As with any organization, the highest ranks of manager are few, and not everyone will be able to be promoted up. This is in clearly conflict with the pattern that pay and promotion are a function of age and time with the firm. The result of this is that organizations often have a massive pool of people with titles like “manager” or “senior specialist” that are empty of any meaning other than a symbolic recognition of rank. While responsibilities may not differ between employees, the function of title gives a socially-mandated stratification that smooths out egos and helps to maintain order in the group.

In addition to creating a context of understanding the “Company Way”, this training period serves to bind the trainees together as a class, or cohort. The entering class students are expected to form long-lasting relationships with each other that will form the basis of their success as they progress through their careers.

Starting at a new company, you will enter the company and undergo a training program that will get you acclimated to the culture and ways of the new company. For one engineer at Panasonic, this program included classroom time, an assignment of several months on an assembly line putting together VCRs, and several months as a salesperson in a “National” (Panasonic brand) retail store. This kind of experience is of great value for creating a context of understanding and loyalty from the employees, but it is only possible because of the expectation of lifetime employment. The standard pattern will see Japanese employees spending their whole working lives at the same company, although this is slowly changing. In the United States, this kind of investment in training would be unrealistic, since employees are not likely to remain with the same organization for more than 5 years.

Having completed training, employees are then assigned to work in appropriate company divisions and begin their careers in earnest. Regular workaday life in Japan is much more regimented than in the United States, (That sounds like another blog post to me).

I will continue this post soon…

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Kevin Ready

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