Freeter Professionals in Japan? Part 1

Japan Industry News (JIN) published an interesting breakdown of the legal categories of workers in Japan, leading in with statistics indicating that the incoming Japanese workforce is still mostly interested in lifetime employment within one company.

According to MHLW statistics from 2013, over half of youngsters desire to work for only one company throughout their career. Merely 28 percent would like to work for multiple companies. … Japan’s Cabinet Office shows that the percentage of young people who think that “one should change jobs if not satisfied with current employment” and “one should change jobs to utilize one’s talent” stands at only 28 percent in Japan as compared to 72 percent in England.

Setting aside fully entrepreneurial options, there are effectively two castes of employee in Japan: Lifetime and temporary.

Lifetime work

Collectively, permanent full staff (“Seishain”) and certain quasi-permanent fixed-term (1—3 year) contracts (“Keiyakushain”) are both safely on the life-time track. For both these categories, JIN reports that: “terminating employees against their will is difficult and … costly.”

For gaijin, who generally see nothing wrong with flexible employment, it’s hard to understand the uncritical and necessary loyalty at the core of permanent Japanese work. Especially when the rigors and stressesunproductive environments, and sexism (and sexism, and sexism) of Japanese companies are open secrets. Fear and Trembling (the film) illuminates our preconceptions and experiences.

Anecdotally, among my first experiences in Japan was an afternoon in the company of a man who’d been let go from his position at a Japanese firm. A gaijin, he had embraced the work life and company loyalty of his co-workers, only to discover that it was never expected of him in the first place; and it wasn’t going to be reciprocated. A few weeks after his solitary downsizing, none of his former co-workers would return his calls.

Temporary work

The temporary category includes explicitly temporary Seishain, and dispatched workers (“Hakenshain” or “Temp Staff”) with contracts that must not be renewed for more than 3 years. If you are a Hakenshain coming up on the 3-year anniversary of your first hiring, you have reason to be anxious about your next contract period.

Disenfranchised freeters (フリーター or “furita“) who string together seasonal and part time, low-skill work fall into the temporary category. Post Bubble Culture blog describes freeters in a way the rhymes with Uber driver:

The freeter lifestyle allows for more flexibility and increased mobility in youth, so it is typically seen to be made up of those individuals who have rejected their expected social role as full time salary workers in favor of the freedom to pursue other personal interests.

The other side of freeters, like uber drivers, is the often precariousness and poor work conditions, with little chance of a stable future or social insurance in the event of misfortune. But, like in many countries, freeter-like employment patterns may have migrated upstream into entrepreneurial roles.

Attitudes toward flexible employment in Japan are changing in line with economic stresses, and greater desire for and reality of women in the workforce. From JIN:

Statistics of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) show that while the share of limited-term employees was only 15 percent in 1984, it increased to 37 percent by 2014 …

New slang terms are the bellwethers of social attitudes in Japan, and I particularly like kensetsu komachi, for young women breaking down the door to Japan’s seasonal construction sector. The sharing, Uber-economy is quietly knocking at Tokyo’s door, despite byzantine and determined regulatory resistance. But, honestly, social change is glacial: facts such as “women made up 16 per cent of new entrepreneurs last year’ are still compatible with exaltations of “a renaissance in Japan for women.”

If an employee can’t leave permanent employment for long before becoming forever temporary, starting out as a freeter may seem like a reasonable option, if higher-skilled options are open. For foreigners, who face unpredictable circumstances in attempting to forge loyalty in a Japanese firm anyway, can there be such a thing as a highly-skilled professional freeter? Puro-furita

Immigration considerations for non-traditional employment are obviously primary for many foreigners in Japan, but that’s a topic for another post.

I’m delighted to explore the flexible legal employment space in Japan. And so, this post is just a beginning. Send your thoughts on the question, and I’ll be back in time with more reports from the ground.

 

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