Trends in Human Resources Practices in Japan
Japan's stagnant economy has greatly affected its labor market -- in June 1998, shrinking GDP growth and low business confidence led unemployment to a new high of 4.1%. As a result, some major Japanese companies are turning away from well-established traditions such as lifetime employment and seniority, choosing instead to downsize and embrace merit-based systems to compete in an increasingly global business environment. Employee expectations of the ideal working environment are changing, and recent deregulation initiatives have led to important changes in working-hour flexibility and equal employment opportunity. This report covers major issues in Japan's changing labor market, and gives guidance to foreign companies looking to successfully recruit and hire staff for their Japanese operations.
Update on the Japanese Economy
Although Japan's economy boomed in the 1980s, the country has found itself in deep recession since the early 1990s. Centralized control of industry, excessive bank credit during the late 1980s and the government's fiscal contraction (particularly in social spending) to cover the resulting excesses of the stock and real estate markets caused Japan's financial bubble to burst in 1989 and 1990. In late 1998, Japan still suffers from an inefficient financial sector and an entrenched bureaucracy; consumer demand is low, banks are burdened with over $500 billion in bad loans, and business confidence is eroding. Japans GDP shrank 5.3% during the first quarter of 1998 and unemployment reached a new high of 4.1% in April 1998.
Despite Japans current economic difficulties, many believe that Japan has reached a turning point in its economic policy. Efforts to reform the sickly banking system are underway, and a comprehensive deregulation program has been introduced over the past year. Japan has embarked on a far-reaching deregulation program that covers energy, telecommunications, housing, finance, and medical devices and pharmaceuticals. For example, under the new deregulation initiative, Japan is speeding up customs clearance processing by introducing new pre-arrival and clearance-upon-arrival procedures, and installing a new computerized system that links the Customs Agency with other agencies. In addition, the Japanese government passed a number of expansionary policies, including $43 billion in tax cuts in April 1998, to jump-start the economy. Japan has further made some changes in its banking structure; many banks are expanding into areas like asset management in order to recoup from unprofitable lending, and several regional banks have merged to cut the scale of Japan's banking problems.
Despite its current problems, Japan's economic future will improve. Japan still possesses the fundamentals for strong economic recovery and growth in strong manufacturing capacity, advanced technology, heavy investments in education and a disciplined workforce. Savings rates remain high (the Japanese save on average approximately 30% of their after-tax income) and Japan still maintains $207 billion in foreign exchange reserves, equal to approximately 60% of all savings held worldwide. While unemployment and slow growth will continue in the short run, continued reforms, especially in deregulation, will stimulate growth and import demand in Japan.
The emphasis placed on seniority in the workplace is one unique characteristic of the Japanese labor market. Japan's strong belief in authority and the chain of command has led to a well-established hierarchy in Japanese companies, where senior staff members are accorded the greatest respect and deference. In general, competition for promotions and greater responsibility is intense among employees, but such competitiveness rarely oversteps the traditional rules of respect for more senior employees governing the workplace. For example, the Japanese are very uncomfortable when a younger or junior employee is promoted over someone older, even if the younger person has greater knowledge or experience in a specific area. In most cases in which a younger person of unusual ability is "promoted" over the heads of more senior employees, employers often refrain from increasing the individual's title or salary until he or she has gained more seniority and age.
Implications of the Seniority System
The Japanese corporate hierarchy, along with a strong tradition of group consensus, has had a significant impact on the skills that employees acquire. For example, mid-career managers (who are usually between the ages of 40 and 50) are typically only allowed to make decisions on routine matters, and often make these decisions as part of a large group. Mid-level managers also act as mediators between their subordinates and superiors. As a result, 40-year-old Japanese managers do not have as much decision-making experience as Western managers of similar age, and will often be uncomfortable making important decisions (especially in the course of negotiations) without the approval of their superiors. There are advantages and disadvantages to this system of consensus-based decision making. It takes much longer for a decision to be made in Japanese companies -- one Japanese management association recently reported that Japanese managers spend up to 40% of their time in conferences and meetings. However, by involving employees from all levels in the decision-making process, decisions often prove easier to implement and Japanese companies build company loyalty and strong employee relationships in the process.
As with lifetime employment, however, the emphasis on seniority is gradually decreasing. Japan's stagnant economy and new deregulation efforts are increasing demand for younger employees, who are typically more energetic, more in tune with modern communications technology and current global business practices, and can shift functional areas with less difficulty. A number of mid-to-senior-level employees have already been released since the recession first set in around the early 1990s, including a significant number of 50-plus-year-old senior managers, who were pushed towards an early retirement. This course of action has helped Japanese companies become more competitive since these companies no longer need to pay the higher salaries associated with older workers. Instead, these companies can channel those extra funds to pay younger, hopefully more productive and less costly employees. In addition, large Japanese companies like Fujitsu, Mitsubishi, Matsushita, and Toyota have recently begun promoting ability and performance over age and title. Although it will probably take a long time to displace Japan's well-established seniority system, Japan's increasingly competitive market is slowly forcing change among Japanese companies.
Japan 's economic slowdown has had major effects on the country's labor market. Financially strapped companies are being pressured to cut or restructure personnel, causing unemployment to reach a new high of 4.1%. In June 1998, approximately 1.05 million Japanese received unemployment benefits, the first time this monthly figure has topped 1 million in 22 years. If zero economic growth continues, some economists predict that the unemployment rate will reach 5% by the year 2000.
Although a rising unemployment rate is problematic, the effects of rising unemployment may not be entirely negative. To date, Japan has accumulated a large number of "surplus" workers who have been able to keep their jobs through societal conventions such as lifetime employment (see section IV). Thus, the current employment trend also reflects growing efforts by Japanese companies to raise productivity and regain earning power. Furthermore, the current unemployment figures still appear quite low compared to those in the West. For example, the U.S., Germany and Canada maintain unemployment rates of approximately 5.4%, 10.8%, and 9.7% respectively.
Figure 1. Unemployment Rates in Japan, 1988-1998
To date, the vast majority of Japanese companies have followed a lifetime employment system where the company and its newly hired employees implicitly agree on a lifetime working contract. Although there is no legal statute enforcing this practice, courts generally consider this convention when deciding employment cases. Depending on the position, companies will recruit their employees from high school or university. For example, companies will pursue university graduates for managerial and technical positions. Every three to five years, employees receive new position assignments in order to familiarize the employee with the company's operations and expand the employee's range of capabilities. Employees typically retire between the ages of 55 and 65, at which time they receive a lump-sum retirement payment from the company. Individuals on the company's board of directors are often allowed to serve until age 65.
Advantages to Lifetime Employment
Although lifetime employment had some negative effects, it has provided Japanese companies with workforce security. Guaranteed employment and a secure salary served to promote employee loyalty, thus protecting the significant investment companies pour into employee training. Throughout the course of employment, employees were also able to establish strong relationships with their colleagues and superiors, reinforcing a sense of good management and harmony within the company. Lastly, workforce security and lack of employee turnover helped to ensure the confidentiality of company information transmitted to an employee.
Figure 2. Composition of Employees by Duration of Work for a Particular Firm
Recent Changes in the Lifetime Employment System
Historically, if an employee's performance level was poor, that individual was shifted to an "easier" position at an affiliate, subsidiary, or related company. Although the employee's salary would probably be lower, his or her title might be improved as a consolation since titles are considered important in Japan. As a result, employee loyalty would not be compromised, and the original company could avoid having to pay the lump-sum retirement amount until the employee retired. This process, known as shukko, was the most common way Japanese conglomerates relieved themselves of surplus or inefficient employees. Until recently, outplacement and outright firing of employees was virtually unknown.
With the current recession, however, some companies have gone out of business and others, particularly large conglomerates (keiretsu), have been forced to downsize. Some Japanese are being forced to change jobs, even in mid-career, and for the first time some traditional Western outplacement firms have appeared in Japan to help with corporate downsizing. While the vast majority of Japanese companies still hire their employees on lifetime contracts, a growing number of companies have begun to emulate Western-style hiring practices in order to improve efficiency.
With the increased efforts to lower personnel costs, more and more companies are hiring contract and dispatched workers to complete tasks. According to the Ministry of Labor's 1997 Industrial Labor Situation Survey, which queried 4,500 private firms with 30 or more regular employees, 50% of respondents said they commissioned work to other firms, and 31% pointed to reduction in personnel costs as a major reason for contracting out work. In fiscal year 1997, firms that most actively hired dispatched workers reported a 30-40% increase in their profits, many of them recording their "largest profits ever." Over the next few months, hourly wages for dispatched workers are expected to rise by 2-3%, and firms contracting out dispatched workers are expected to increase their charges to client companies by an average of 3-5% to cover growing social insurance premiums.
Figure 3. Composition of Non-Regular Employees in Japan, 1996 (%)
Wages and Compensation
Current Salary System
In Japan, employees usually receive their salaries in 14 equal parts, 12 of which are paid monthly and the other two in June. Additional bonuses are paid to employees in the form of extra payments in early December. On the other hand, if the company has not done well, the employee is new, or the employee has not met performance standards in the past six months, the December bonus would be canceled and the regular 14-payment plan would apply. Although this practice varies from one company to another, it is still quite common in Japan and encourages employees to save money for such things such as large consumer purchases, children's education, or buying a house. Foreign employees may be paid on the Western system of 12 months' pay plus a bonus, which is what they are used to at "home." When discussing salary with a potential employee in Japan, it is useful to know:
- For all applicants, the total annual salary should be the main issue, not the incremental payments. Bonuses can vary or not be paid based upon company performance (particularly in the last six months) and/or the employee's starting date.
- As mentioned above, the seniority system in Japan still dominates the pay scale. To a large extent, level and experience are valued more than special skills or education, although some major companies are trying to reverse this trend slowly. Most employees, therefore, will not ask for salaries that are significantly higher than others with comparable responsibilities. In some cases, Japanese companies may pay a higher base salary to a foreigner depending on the foreigner, his or her expertise, and the job. For an overview of the breakdown of the salary structure in Japan, see Figure 4.
- In general, Japanese companies do not tailor individual benefits and compensation packages to specific employee needs. New employees typically join a company in the spring as a "class," and are initially given the same pay and benefits. While there is variation from industry to industry, companies within the same industry usually pay approximately the same annual salary to new employees who are university graduates. Bonuses may vary from one employee to another, but such bonus payments are based on performance and cannot be determined in advance.
Figure 4. 1997 Salary Structure in Japan
Source: Pacific Bridge, Inc.
Recent Changes in Salary Structure
From the 1980s to the early 1990s, wages in Japan steadily increased. This growth has stagnated, however, since the recession began. Japan's average wage hike for workers of major corporations saw a record-low rise of approximately 2.5% in fiscal 1996-97, compared to a 3.1% gain in 1994-95. Wage growth has slowed for several reasons. First, the Japanese economy is flat. Second, the growth of temporary and part-time workers (who are paid much less than regular employees) has contributed to some of this stagnation. Third, the Asian financial crisis is also responsible for flattening wage growth; foreign companies employing local Japanese will find that the rapid depreciation in the yen over the past year has cut real wage costs for these employees by as much as 20%.
Figure 5. Average Monthly Cash Earnings per Regular Employee by Industry, 1985-1996(Establishments with 30 or more employees)
Changes in the Salary System
Some large Japanese corporations are now adopting the Western-based annual salary system in place of the 14-payment convention. A 1998 Central Labor Committee survey queried approximately 360 large Japanese companies that had paid-in capital of more than 500 million and more than 1,000 employees, and found that close to 30% have already introduced (or plan to introduce) Western-based annual salary systems for managerial employees. Moreover, manufacturing companies represent approximately 66% of the firms that have already established annual salary systems, and many have also taken major steps towards eliminating the seniority-based pay system.
Benefits: Health Care
All employees in Japan are covered under one of three health care plans: National Health Insurance (NHI), Employer's Health Plan, or Private Health Insurance.
National Health Insurance
Japan 's local governments administer NHI (kokumin kenko hoken). Individuals who do not receive health care benefits from their company (for example, if one works for a company which employs fewer than five employees) or who are self-employed can obtain coverage under this program if they do not already belong to another private health plan. Under NHI, the individual must pay approximately 30% of clinic or hospital costs. The plan also covers approximately 70% of medical, dental and prescription drugs. The annual premium for NHI participation is based on the previous year's income and individual residents' tax payments, with a maximum monthly payment of 63,000 (approximately $450). Within the 23 Tokyo wards, for example, the annual premium is calculated as follows:
(Residents' Tax)(1.07) + (16,800)(Number of family members)
Employer's Health Plan
Most employers enroll their workers in the Employer's Health Plan (shakai hoken). Under this system, insured employees pay approximately 10% of the cost for medical services, dental treatment, and medicines, while their dependents are charged approximately 30% of the cost of outpatient services and 20% of inpatient or hospitalization service costs.
Under this plan, the employer and employee contribute each contribute 50% of the monthly premium, with the employee's share deducted from payroll. The employee's monthly premium is calculated as follows:
Monthly premium = (Basic monthly salary)(85/1000)
As with NHI, the maximum payment per month is 63,000 ($450).
Private Health Insurance
In principle, the Ministry of Health and Welfare mandates that anyone residing in Japan must belong to either the national health plan or company health insurance supervised by the government. However, many individuals, particularly foreign employees, are allowed to "quit" their national or corporate plans and obtain private health insurance. Private insurance is generally more flexible and provides more options than current government plans, and a growing number of foreign companies are offering private insurance programs in Japan through companies' central insurance policies. Foreign employees are especially drawn to private insurance because they can avoid having to complete the numerous legal documents necessary for coverage under local health insurance systems. Expatriates should be aware, however, that many private plans do not offer coverage in their home country as part of their basic service, and thus cannot cover the employee while he or she is away from Japan. Also, while private insurance holders are increasing rapidly in the urban areas of Japan (like Tokyo), hospitals in rural Japan are not yet used to private insurance schemes. Thus, certain procedures like obtaining reimbursement can be very difficult for privately insured workers in rural areas.
Employee Benefits: Housing, Transportation, and Sick Leave
Benefits can typically be divided into housing, transportation, special family allowances, vacation, sick leave, health benefits, and pension. A detailed listing of all employee benefits is usually found in a company's work rules or personnel handbook, which must be submitted to the government by all employers.
Housing and Transportation
Single employees may be offered dormitory housing and may receive travel allowances for commuting to and from the workplace. Special family allowances, rental benefits, business trip expenses, and allowances for relocation may also be granted depending on the company and the individual. Most of the time, the size of the benefits package received by an employee depends on his or her title and position in the company. In some cases, the amount of benefits may also depend upon whether the employee has an ownership position in the company.
Vacation and Sick Leave
Vacation time accorded to employees in Japan depends upon the length of time they have worked with their company. After a new employee's six-month probation is up, he or she may accumulate up to 10 days of paid vacation for that year. For every year thereafter, additional paid vacation is accrued up to a ceiling of 20 days. In general, a limited amount of vacation time may also be carried over from one year to another, but after the ceiling is reached, employees must forfeit additional leave if not used within the year. Sick leave policies vary from one company to another. Often, companies will require a doctor's report if an employee uses more than three days of sick leave.
Employee Benefits: Pensions
Current Pension System
Currently, companies choose between two different pension plans: the National Pension System and the Employee's Pension Program.
National Pension System
The National Pension System (kokumin nenkin) was introduced in 1961, and is regulated by the National Pension Law. This system has provided pension coverage for all citizens, and has come to be a major source of financial support for the country's elderly. All employees between the ages of 20 and 59 are eligible to participate in this system. Benefits can be paid after the employee turns 59 and if he or she has contributed to the fund for at least 25 years. As of April 1, 1995, the monthly premium for participation by an employee is 11,700 (about $83). A premium tax on participants and a government subsidy have been the major sources of financing for this pension system.
Employee's Pension Program
The Employee's Pension Program (kosei nenkin) is regulated by the Employee Pension Insurance Law. This pension plan must cover all individuals under 65 whose employers participate in the program. Benefits and contributions are decided by standard remuneration; monthly standard remuneration (MSR) comes in approximately 30 types and ranges between 92,000 (about $660) and 590,000 (about $4,200). A simplified calculation of the annual pension benefit is as follows:
(Average MSR for entire career)(7.5/1,000)(Number of months as a contributor)
In this program, the employer and employee each contribute 50%, and the employee's share is deducted from the company payroll each month. The monthly contribution for men is calculated by multiplying (145/1,000) and for women by multiplying (141.5/1,000).Recent Changes in the Pension System
Japan 's pension market, currently the largest in Asia and second largest in the world, is expected to increase its holdings of funded pension assets from about $2 trillion to $4 trillion within the next ten years. However, socioeconomic changes in Japan are increasing the burden on the pension system. Japan's aging population, stagnant economic growth, and increased participation of women in the workforce have initiated serious discussions within the government about revamping the pension system (particularly the Employee's Pension Program) to accommodate future demand.
Figure 6. Labor Force Projection in Japan by Age
Japan 's Ministry of Health and Welfare (MHW) also plans to revise the Employee's Pension Program in 1999, and has identified five options for doing so in its 1998 White Paper on Pensions:
- Keep the premium for maintaining benefits currently available (currently 34.3% of monthly income);
- Keep the Employee's Pension Plan premium to within 30% of monthly income;
- Keep the Employee's Pension Plan premium to within 20% of annual income (which includes bonuses);
- Maintain the premium for the Employee's Pension Plan at the current level (20% of monthly income); or
- Abolish (i.e. privatize) the Employee's Pension Plan.
The debate on these options has centered on three major concerns. The first major concern is the manner in which the pension system should be restructured in order to amass more revenue and create a better balance between the contributions given and benefits received for each generation. Currently, the MHW can choose to implement an assessment system, an accumulation system, or some combination of the two.
Second, there is a growing debate over how to adjust the level at which pension benefits and contributions are calculated. The Employee's Pension Plan is still premised upon the male wage earner as the only working member of the household; it thus reduces the pension-earning capacity of female members of the household. In the latter case, for example, a husband whose wife has earned five years' salary receives a pension of 239,000 (about $1,700), only 8,000 ($57) more than he would receive were his wife not to work at all. A 1998 MHW survey recently reported that over 70% of Japanese familiar with the national corporate pension plan revisions support monthly benefit reductions of 10-20% and monthly pension premiums between 26-30%.
The third issue being debated is whether premiums should be collected monthly or annually (including bonuses), and whether part-time and full-time housewives should be required to contribute to the public pension system. Currently, part-time employees (those who work less than three-quarters of the hours worked by regular employees), workers earning less than 1.3 million (about $9,300) a year, and full-time housewives are exempt from paying pension premiums -- although these groups are still eligible for receiving basic pension in old age. The MHW is studying ways that this exemption can be reduced for part-time workers and housewives in order to lessen the growing burden on the pension system.
Recruiting Employees in Japan
Recruitment strategies vary according to the size and type of company in Japan. Under the tradition of lifetime employment, most Japanese companies hire a new class of graduates from colleges and universities each year, and provide on-the-job training to their employers throughout their working lives. Most large Japanese companies (those having more than 100 employees) are able to recruit their new class of managers successfully from these institutions. Smaller companies, however, must rely on other recruitment methods as well. Foreign companies also face some difficulty in hiring new employees from universities, which involves breaking through the strong company-university ties in Japan. Most foreign companies therefore rely on temporary staffing, mid-career hiring, overseas Japanese returnees and expatriates to fill their positions. Common recruitment methods for foreign companies include word of mouth, employment agencies, newspaper ads in English and Japanese (in such publications as The Japan Times, for example) and executive search firms.
As mentioned above, university recruiting is still by far the most popular method for large Japanese companies to hire new professionals, and there is a great deal of prestige that accompanies being hired by a major Japanese firm. As a result, university recruiting is extremely competitive among companies that are especially intent on hiring graduates with engineering and other technical degrees.
Due to the longstanding popularity of hiring university graduates, many Japanese companies have been able to establish a large alumni base and thus maximize their exposure on campuses. These companies develop strong relationships with the faculty, alumni programs, and university managers; many also make charitable cash and in-kind donations. As a result, strong connections are developed between these institutions and company representatives, whose sole job is to recruit candidates from universities and maintain their contacts there. Foreign companies, many of who have little or only recent exposure in Japan, are therefore at a marked disadvantage when it comes to university recruiting.
The cycle of recruiting begins in the student's junior year. Interested students typically send approximately 100 postcards to various companies to inquire about employment; some also contact companies directly. Many companies sponsor forums (usually held April through August) that are heavily attended by university prospects. The formal recruiting cycle begins in April through contacts with professors, and the formal selection process takes place between July and November. Successful recruits begin their careers the following April (the academic year in Japan begins in April and ends in March). Japan enacted a law that regulates all recruiting practices; it prohibits companies from recruiting on campus before July 1 st and sets standards for other recruiting-related activities. However, this law is not enforced, and many companies ignore it.
Due to the fierce competition among companies and students for employment, some companies have recently begun to cancel job offers at the last minute if a better candidate accepts. Many students have responded by accumulating as many offers as possible and then waiting until the last minute to notify the companies of their decision. Foreign companies should therefore be careful about making an offer too early; the sooner an offer is made, the more companies must worry about whether the student will change his or her mind. While employment contracts are enforceable in Japan, it is possible for a student to successfully cancel such a contract.
Despite changing hiring practices, it is still very difficult to hire mid-career professionals in Japan. A well-rooted stigma still exists against changing jobs (chuto saiyo) in Japan, and employees generally switch companies only when there is a significant problem. Economic stagnation and international competition are changing this practice, however, and a slow but increasing number of individuals are beginning to switch jobs mid-career. There are some advantages to this trend, since mid-career recruiting involves a greater emphasis on a candidate's abilities and experience than traditional considerations (such as seniority). Also, by hiring mid-career candidates, companies do not have to invest as much in training as they do for new graduates.
Given that university recruiting is so difficult, foreign companies will find that mid-career hiring is often the only way to "hit the ground running." This is especially true for start-up companies, who do not have much capital to invest in training. To lure hesitant Japanese middle managers that are often fearful of losing seniority, foreign companies can offer a substantial salary increase with excellent benefits and/or a prestigious title. As in other countries, personal contacts, networking, advertising and executive search firms are always helpful in canvassing the pool of Japanese mid-career candidates.
Under current law, employers can hire temporary staff for up to one year, after which new single-year contracts can be made. Companies typically hire such staff in Japan from temporary help agencies, which charge a fee to the hiring company if it decides to hire the temporary employee on a permanent basis after the trial period is over. Several such firms cater to foreign companies in Japan and provide English-speaking candidates.
Hiring Overseas Japanese: Japanese Returnees
Given the traditional constraints on employment in Japan, foreign companies are also increasingly turning to Japanese returnees -- that is, Japanese nationals studying and/or living abroad who either want to return to Japan or have already returned. These individuals, many of whom are in their late 20s or early to mid-30s, are often well trained and highly motivated. They have Japanese roots and some Western business and/or cultural experience, and many (particularly women) believe that they will have a difficult time readjusting to the highly formalized Japanese way of doing business. A Western company may therefore offer a welcome alternative to the Japanese corporate environment.
Returnees' international exposure and Japanese language and cultural skills offer a dynamic advantage for foreign companies. Not only do foreign companies avoid having to train these individuals in international business practices, but returnees offer a better understanding of local business practices as well. Furthermore, the visa requirements for returnees are considerable more relaxed than those for expatriates; often, there are no special requirements for them to reenter the country, except to go through customs at the airport. Many of the advantages to hiring returnees are difficult to achieve by employing either local Japanese candidates or expatriates (see below). In general, returnees may be more expensive than local Japanese, but the benefits and compensation they expect varies widely from one returnee to another. Other potential areas of concern include whether the returnee will be able to get along with other local Japanese employees (local workers may feel it unfair that the returnee receives higher status and/or salary simply because of his or her study in the West) and the returnee's visa status. Foreign companies interested in recruiting Japanese returnees can start by looking on foreign university campuses, particularly at science, engineering, and business schools.
While expatriates may be necessary to start a foreign operation, they are generally very expensive and should be kept to a minimum. This is particularly true in Japan, which has been one of the most expensive countries in the world to maintain an expatriate. Currently, however, the depreciation of the yen and the recent proposal by Japan's Finance Minister and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to make significant income tax cuts in 1999 (reducing the highest income tax rate from 65% to 50%) may make it (temporarily) slightly easier to hire expatriates.
Figure 7. Japan's Proposed Individual Tax Cuts in 1999
Retaining Employees in Japan
Changing Motivational Tools
Ten years ago, employees of large Japanese firms expected to receive continuous salary growth, regular career promotions, and long-term employment security. However, Japan's economic stagnation has forced changes in these expectations. In 1996, a survey was taken of 3,130 white-collar and managerial employees on what they believed were the most important employee motivators. The respondents came from over 30 firms in the Tokyo and Osaka metropolitan areas. Although their answers reflected a continued belief in some Japanese employment practices (i.e. in-house skill development), many also favored "newer," productivity-raising management practices such as performance and evaluation feedback that affect an individuals paycheck and career growth.
Figure 8. Importance of Rewards and Reward Allocation Procedures as Motivators in Japan
The survey revealed a strong bias against the seniority system in terms of training and promotion; a strong majority of the employees who responded (78.7%) would prefer staffing policies that promote employees with high potential even if it involves a reversal of the seniority order. An even higher proportion of employees stated that they would like to acquire skills that are transferable among firms even if it means that they will not be promoted to senior management positions. As a caveat, however, these preferences generally decline as the employee gets older. In addition, employees are still split 50-50 on whether they would prefer having their wages based solely upon job performance without consideration of age or seniority. As changes in the economy and company outlook continue, employee expectations will certainly change. However, at present, employers should not overestimate Japanese employees' enthusiasm for a wholly performance-based corporate environment.
Termination of Employees
Because Japanese law typically requires "just cause" for dismissal, terminating employment in Japan is significantly more difficult than in Western countries. However, if employers are aware of the laws governing termination and follow them carefully, termination in Japan is possible, albeit uncommon.
Under existing laws, if there is no fixed term for employment, both the employer and employee are free to terminate employment by giving 14 days' notice. In this case, no specific reason for termination is required. Where the employee's contract involves stated periodic payments, the parties can terminate employment at the start of the next pay period if notice is given in the first half of the current pay period. In cases where employment is for a definite period of time, the employee and worker can only terminate employment at any time during that period if there is an "unavoidable" reason.
Special Labor Laws and Working Conditions
Equal Employment Opportunities for Women
The Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) was enacted in 1985, and later revised in 1997. Despite the fact that women's participation in the workplace increased markedly after the EEOL was enacted, the legislation itself remains quite conservative. Although the share of women workers in the Japanese workforce increased 36% between 1985 and 1996, the 1985 EEOL refrained from any intervention against discriminatory practices other than advising companies that they had a duty to follow equal employment guidelines. As a result, women continued to experience widespread discrimination in recruitment and hiring.
The 1997 EEOL takes a more active approach to ending discrimination in the workplace. Mediation procedures can commence at the request of one party (the 1985 EEOL required that both parties agree to mediation), retaliation against a discontented worker (dismissal, for example) is illegal, and any company's violation of equal employment provisions will be publicized by the Ministry of Labor. The law also attempts to create a more "equal" working environment by abolishing special privileges accorded to women under the 1985 EEOL. For example, it abolishes the 1985 version's provisions to "improve the welfare of women" by eliminating the special treatment accorded to women for overtime, rest-day work and night work. Thus, after April 1, 1999, women are in principle subject to the same working-hour regulations as men. Preferential treatment in hiring women is only permitted when a company is trying to correct obstacles to equal employment opportunity in the workplace.
Nevertheless, some problems still exist with the current EEOL. The law does not impose criminal penalties for companies violating equal employment laws, nor does it take a firm stand against sexual harassment (sexual harassment is not considered a form of discrimination under existing Japanese law). Progress in Japan's equal employment law remains to be seen as more women enter the Japanese workplace and the enforcement of such "equalization" has yet to be fully achieved.
"Harmonizing" Work and Family Life: The Childcare and Family Care Leave Law
Two major factors have influenced Japan's drive to find a proper equilibrium between work and family life. First, the growing number of women in the job market has raised concerns about how women will be able to balance their responsibilities at work and at home. Second, Japan's rapidly aging population is placing an increased burden on working individuals, many of whom must take care of their aging relatives themselves due to the lack of elderly care facilities in Japan. As a result of these two factors, the Japanese government created the Childcare Leave Law (CCLL) in 1991, later renaming it the Childcare and Family Care Leave Law (CCFCLL) in 1995.
With regard to childcare, the CCFCLL and the CCLL are fairly similar. Upon request, a worker has the right to take leave in order to care for his or her child, including adopted children less than a year old. Workers that are employed on a day-to-day basis or have fixed term contracts are excluded from this provision. Although the CCLL did not explicitly require the employer to guarantee any payments during this leave, a 1994 amendment to the Employment Insurance Law codified a payment structure. Under the amendment, 20% of the worker's regular monthly wages earned before taking leave must be paid as a Childcare Leave Basic Allowance from the employment insurance, with an additional 5% as a Returning Job Allowance.
In addition to childcare allowances, the CCFCLL will also grant workers the right to take family care leave effective April 1, 1999. A worker can request this leave in order to care for a family member who is in a condition requiring constant care for two weeks or more due to sickness, injury, physical or mental disability. "Family members" in this case include the spouse, parents and child of the worker, parents of the worker's spouse, and the worker's grandparents, siblings, and grandchildren, provided that they reside with (and are dependents of) the worker. The period of family care leave cannot exceed three months, and in principle, the right to family care can be exercised only once for each family member.
The employer must grant a worker the right to take family leave, unless: 1) the worker has been employed for less than one year by the employer; 2) the worker will be leaving the company within the next three months; or 3) the worker's weekly work days are two days or less. Other exceptions are also included in the Enforcement Order of the CCFCLL. In order to be eligible for these exceptions, employers must conclude a written agreement with a majority representative at the company. Still, the CCFCLL does not require the employer to guarantee payments during family care leave. Unlike childcare leave, current Japanese law does not provide social security benefits or social security premium exemption for family care leave.
Deregulation and Increased Flexibility in Working Conditions
Japan 's deregulation measures and the influx of temporary, part-time and female workers led the government to revise certain provisions of the Labor Standards Law in December 1997. The maximum length of labor contracts was extended from one to three years (limited, however, to "older employees" and those with "sophisticated knowledge") and the upper limit of flexible working hours was relaxed to allow workers up to 10 hours in one day and 52 hours in one week. These measures aim to fulfill the growing need for diversified contract periods and work patterns, particularly in an increasingly competitive economy. The government is also considering an increase in the upper limit of overtime to 360 hours a year (compared to the 150 hours proposed by labor unions). Japan's Central Labor Standards Council also seeks to strengthen worker protection and clarify working conditions under the Labor Standards Law, which currently focuses on wage-related matters.
Japan is undergoing a period of major economic change. As economic stagnation and growing competition forces companies to downsize, human resources practices that once formed the core of Japanese corporate life are being superseded by more competitive recruitment and retention methods. While conventions such as lifetime employment and seniority are still visible, the number of mid-career shifts and companies switching to performance-based pay is growing. Foreign companies looking to hire staff for their Japanese operations should pay close attention to these developments, including the new and changing expectations of Japanese employees, in order to build a successful staff in Japan.
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- Asia Commercial Overview , US and Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS), February 13, 1998.
- " Japan: Jobless Rate to Soar in Economic Age of Uncertainty." Asahi Shimbun/Asahi Evening News; July 29, 1998
- CIA World Factbook 1997 .
- "Labor Dispatchers Continue to Expand."Working Conditions and the Labor Market, Japan Institute of Labor, June 1, 1998.
- "Survey Finds 30% of Big Corporations ending Seniority-Based Pay System." Comline-Tokyo Financial Wire, April 6, 1998.
- Japan 's Pension Market to 2005 . Curuby & Company, ISI Publications, 1997.
- "Trends in Debate on Revision of Pension System: White Paper on Pensions." General Survey, Japan Institute of Labor, June 1, 1998.
- M. Morishima, Keio University. Changes in Japanese Human Resource Management: Japan Institute of Labor, November 1997.
- T. Araki, University of Tokyo. Recent Legislative Developments in Equal Employment and Harmonization of Work and Family Life in Japan. Japan Institute of Labor, April 1, 1998.