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.