WHAT DO WE WORK FOR? / Emi Saito

Our company has a culture of openness and trust. (Openness)

―We let the employees work on responsible projects even from their young age. (Discretion)

―You can take maternity and childcare leave for a certain amount of time. (Diversity)

All these phrases can be heard everywhere when you are job hunting. They have a nice ring to them, but they do not describe the real condition. What age do you call “young”? What is the criterion of openness? Has your company been so homogeneous that you have to proclaim inclusion? Seeing these ideas from another perspective will give you a new interpretation. When I was job hunting, I found that the Japanese screening process was full of strange situations.

I started job hunting in January of my third year, after coming back from studying abroad. It was a relatively late start compared to my friends but since I had experienced a few summer internships and interviews at the Boston Career Forum, it did not have much impact on the whole process in retrospect.  From March 1st, the Japanese companies which belong to the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (日本経済団体連合会, 経団連) can open their recruiting sites. They can hold information sessions officially from this period of time. I visited three or four companies a day and this was the busiest time of job hunting. In April, a new school year had started, but the lifestyle did not change much. While attending seminars, I also had to write resumes and application forms to apply for screening. Then I thought, “Why do I have to put aside my studies to meet the expectations of companies?”

Most companies do not think about students’ university life. Since you do not know what time you will have an interview or a seminar, you cannot plan your academic schedule as you want. Actually, I only took three courses which was a minimum amount to meet the graduation requirements of the department. One of my friends did not even take any courses at all. Job hunting is a choice, so you also have the option not to do it and concentrate on your studies. However, in Japan, there is a culture to hire new graduates simultaneously in bulk (新卒一括採用). If you could not ride on the wave, you would have to wait for one more year to catch the next one. That means you should join the competition sooner or later if you want to get a job after graduation. Of course, not all the companies are as harsh, and some do empathize with you. Some of the personnel departments understood my situation and rescheduled interviews generously. However, for some companies, asking to reschedule an interview means that you do not have much interest and eagerness to work for the company. You will be under the pressure that you have to say “yes” with the fixed time so not to give a negative impression. In such a situation, would you be able to ask a caller to change the offered meeting time? This is why most of the Japanese college students are forced to prioritize the screening process over studying. It is our obligation to study as students, isn’t it?

In April and May, after the submission of application forms, informal interviews started. When you get a phone call or an invitation mail, you cannot tell if the next meeting will be an interview. Since the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations do not allow its companies to conduct interviews before June, they ask you to come to the office saying, “we would like to know more about you.” During job hunting, you should bear in mind that all you hear is not the truth. Sometimes what others say include implications, so you must sense them. A culture of consideration toward someone else’s feeling is one of the best traits Japanese people have, but when it comes to job hunting, that only makes you stressed out. For example, nowadays, matching (= the state where the character of the candidates matches the culture of a company) is more emphasized than before so I had lots of opportunities to speak with senior employees at talk sessions. At such sessions, not all the questions are allowed to be asked. If you asked the questions related to salary or vacation, you would give the impression that you are a rude and superficial person. Actually, I do not know much about the benefit programs of my company. To avoid this undesirable situation, whenever I met senior employees who worked for the company I was applying for, I always prepared a list of questions that I wanted to ask. I might look like an organized and prudent person with a list of questions and I can reduce the possibility to give an involuntary impression by asking a forbidden question carelessly.

In addition, you will face a crisis of confidence during job hunting due to its opaqueness. Nobody can tell who is responsible for the screening process when you meet employees except workers of the company. That means, even a senior of your club, who you know well might have some power to affect your evaluation. To be kind to everyone you meet is an iron rule to win the race of job hunting. Especially financial companies often count how many times you attended their seminars. For them this number is a measure of how eager the student is to work for the company. Similarly, trading companies also keep track of how many times a student made an appointment with its workers privately. The situation is worse when it comes to an interview. Interviewers will ask about your background, experiences, and skills, sometimes praising your previous work. On the surface, they look like they are listening and have positive feelings to you, but later tell you that you did not pass the selection. I, relatively, had few opportunities to face this situation but I heard my friends and colleagues say, “I can’t believe anybody” during job hunting. Companies do not want to give a negative impression to students because the students might be their future customers. However, to give a false impression during an interview and airbrush the conversation after is also malicious. Even if you felt that you did a good job in an interview, it does not mean that you can pass. That is why students often say, “Job hunting is all about luck and fate.” In spite of those facts, an interviewer asks, “After all, which company do you want to work for the most?” They know students apply for around thirty companies on average and still ask such an empty question.

When I was studying abroad, I noticed one of the biggest differences between the U.S. and Japan lied in the meaning of university education. How many Japanese college students can answer the question, “What do you want to be after graduating?” While I was in New York, I was often asked about my major and future career by my friends. I answered, “Communications” because I majored in it there, and then, they often continued, “Then do you want to be a journalist?” At first, I did not know how to respond to this question until I realized that in America, what you learn is directly connected with what you will do in the future. All of my friends there have a dream; my roommate was a film major to work in the film industry, and one of my best friends had already started market research as an economics major. Japan’s case is totally the opposite. Even if you learn how to speak a second language, it does not mean that you will be an interpreter or a writer of it. Unless you specialize in a particular academic field such as medical care, pharmaceutics or music, Japanese students do not think of their major as something they will utilize after graduation.

Since we were in an elementary school, we were told to be considerate to others, imagine how our counterparts feel when we do a specific thing, and help people in need. Originally, Japanese education is more focused on mental development. Also, the Japanese curriculum which offers college students a variety of courses, shows that broadening the students’ insight is the school’s responsibility. Regardless of the difference in purpose of education, Japanese companies often ask, “What is your dream?” “What do you want to do in our company?” “How would you contribute to our company after you start working?” Who knows what job one can do which he has never experienced? Although companies can tell how deeply the interviewee understands the company, deciding which candidates to pass based on its answer does not make sense.

Furthermore, I personally think working satisfaction in Japan is low and only a few people enjoy working while the majority do not feel joy in it. I have seen many workers who look exhausted on the train on my way home. Media portrays working as tiring, unreasonable and demanding. Is it an ideal picture of society? Shouldn’t work be more enjoyable and challenging? Once my Taiwanese friend told me that people in Taiwan do not necessarily find a job straight after graduation.  If they could not find a dream, they can take time off to study abroad, work at an internship, and so on. After they explored their insights, they start job hunting. This is what is called a gap year. Likewise, I think Japanese conventional thinking toward job hunting should be more flexible. Students learn about the world through four years of college education, but it is too short for them to decide what they want to pursue for the rest of their lives. In the current situation, the notion that it is natural to finish college education within four years is so widespread and college students who do not graduate straightly are thought to have something wrong. It deprives students of opportunities to pursue their interests actively in any field. I understand the Japanese simultaneous hiring system cannot be replaced with a hiring system throughout a year since it would be a huge reform and does not match the current education. However, the society should throw away the notion to give students any options to live life freely. After years of self-fulfillment, I believe that students can work in the industry they think is most suitable for them and working satisfaction in Japan would gradually increase.

To sum up, you have to bear these unreasonable situations when you job hunt in Japan. If you want to earn a good salary, there is no choice but to catch the wave of simultaneous hiring in the spring. However, I do not believe this convention allows young students to live life vigorously and the notion that working for happiness needs to be more embraced in Japanese society. On the other hand, the highly publicized work style reforms, recent attempts towards diversity and inclusion, enabled us to think this way. In this time in Japan, one should choose an occupation after deep thought about how he or she wants to lead their lives. The society should throw away the old-fashioned culture of “should” and I hope all the people in this country will take working as a much happier and fruitful way of life.

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