The traditional system of employment in Japan is based on the idea of lifetime employment. This refers to the practice of people having only one employer from the time they leave school/university to the time they retire. While this practice is under threat from a number of trends within Japanese society, it is still a very dominant idea, particularly within large companies and government.

I work in one of these large companies, however as I am a foreigner employed on a year-by-year contract, I am not considered part of the lifetime employment system. The problem is that there is little understanding of any alternative concept of employment, and so for better or worse I have to deal with the strange (to me) side-effects of the Japanese system of lifetime employment. These include:

  • Weirdly skewed labour market - There is little demand for older (above 30) workers, and such job-seekers are treated with suspicion. After all, why would somebody be looking for a job at that age? Even if an employee wished to leave their job and look for another, they would face great difficulties in finding another.
  • Employers treating employees like shit - In a system where it is possible for people to actually quit and find another job, a poorly treated employee will do just that. But where the labour market is skewed as described above, employees are trapped, and management takes advantage of this. There are numerous examples of the ways in which employees are treated like shit:
    • Sexual harassment
    • Verbal harassment and public "scolding", often for seemingly trivial offenses
    • Uncomfortable work environment - This takes many forms, including cramped spaces, poor office equipment and computers, minimal use of air-conditioning and heating in order to "save money", minimal provision of kitchen facilities and other amenities, etc.
    • Intrusive "rules" - These can regulate practically all aspects of life, sometimes extending beyond company premises and company time. At my company they include such items as disallowing unzippered jackets, disallowing having your hands in your pockets, disallowing driving during lunch times, insisting that you provide information on the route that you travel from your home to work, insisting that you travel to work each day using the same mode of transport (for eg, you cannot alternate between bike and car - it must be one or the other)
  • Employees doing little work - With virtually zero chance of being fired, many employees choose to laze their way through the day.
  • Incompetents over-represented - People who have the ability to take advantage of the limited set of opportunities available in the skewed Japanese labour market, or who can make their way in the global labour market, tend to do so, leaving behind the people who are unemployable elsewhere. Often (but not always) these tend to be older employees who are unwilling or unable to adapt to modern technology, but are nevertheless drawing very large salaries due to their seniority.

Amusing anecdote: A fellow foreigner at my company was totally incompetent, and was hated by all who came into contact with him. Management dearly wanted to fire him, but inexplicably persisted in renewing his 12-month contract every year for 4 years in a row. The reason for this was finally discovered - his employment contract (written in English) contained a clause that stated that the contract could be terminated at any time if both parties agreed. However this was understood by the Japanese management as meaning that his contract must be renewed unless both parties agreed, and because this employee always expressed a strong desire to stay at the company, management felt they had no choice but to persist with renewing his contract every year. They were very surprised to find out what that clause meant, which indicates just how foreign the idea of an employment contract was to them.

Lifetime employment is fairly well-institutionalized in Japan thanks to the Labor Standards Law and a bizarre constitutional "right and obligation to work."

Essentially, if you're in Japan and you aren't on a fixed-term contract, you can only be fired if you commit a crime on the job, or perpetrate some sort of extreme wrongdoing against the company. Even if you're on a fixed-term contract, you achieve this sort of invulnerability after the second or third renewal (which is why many foreigners, like JET Programme participants, only get two or three one-year contracts).

This is best illustrated by the Kochi Broadcasting case, probably the most-read in Japanese labor law. A hapless radio announcer slept in two times over a fairly short period of time, and both times caused a major radio station in Shikoku to broadcast dead air for up to ten minutes. His bosses tried to fire him, but the local district court overturned the dismissal.

Contract law in Japan is influenced by many notions of the strong overpowering the weak. Distributors, for instance, can often get huge damage awards if their supplier terminates the distribution contract. A 10-year distribution relationship might yield two years' worth of lost profits, for instance. The idea is that the distributor relies on the supplier for their livelihood, especially if they have some sort of exclusive deal.

Employment works the same way. The employee is reliant on their employer for a livelihood, and the employer has the responsibility to help them get over their problems, much like a parent has to keep their child from smoking crack or becoming a cowboy.

As a result, you can't fire, demote, or cut the pay of an employee without cause—either heinous behavior (in which case you have to punish them pursuant to work rules approved by the local Labor Standards Office), or absolute economic necessity (i.e. the company is about to declare bankruptcy, in which case everyone, including management, has to take pay cuts at the same time).

Of course, this doesn't mean that employers are stuck with problematic employees forever. They just have to find alternative methods to deal with them. The noble methods are:

  1. Transfer the employee to a different department.
  2. Find the employee a job at another company.
  3. Bribe the employee to resign.

There are also some not-so-noble methods, of course. The most infamous is to stick the employee in a completely empty office—a chair, a desk, and maybe a clock—from 9 to 5 every day, and give them nothing to do. A more senior employee who's become completely useless is likely to be given a "job" where they stare out a window every day.

Such procedures often baffle foreign companies that are doing business in Japan. When they learn about an employee who's sleeping on the job or abusing customers, their first reaction is to send out a pink slip. You can't do this. If you fire someone and they know anything about labor law (or can afford a lawyer who does), they can sue you and get damages, as well as an injunction to have them reinstated. (To which the appropriate response, of course, is to let them come back, which will invariably frustrate them enough to accept a severance package and disappear...)

In Japan, your company is your family. When you hire people, you hire them for the long-term. And if they turn out to have issues, it's your job to make things work, like a good corporate mommy.

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