Monday, August 22, 2005

How to swim upstream

I keep meaning to write in my blog at least weekly, but here it is, almost two months since my last entry. It's not because I can't find anything to write about. Japan, and especially Tokyo, are filled with millions of things to write about! If you lived here a lifetime, you still wouldn't run out of new observations and impressions.

A few days ago I taught a young businessman who was on his third job! By Japanese standards, this is almost unheard of. Despite a somewhat softening trend, employees are hired right out of college and almost always remain with one company until they retire. It's quite unusual to hear about three jobs by around the age of 32. So, I asked my student to explain his career path.

He, like almost all college graduates, was hired just before he graduated. He worked for that company for a few years until he decided he didn't enjoy the type of work he was doing anymore. He felt the need to get more training in a broader range within his field, so he left and joined a foreign company operating in Japan. There, he spent a few more years until he reached the same plateau with his skills. Unable to broaden his skill base while working at that company, he decided to make another move and joined yet another foreign company operating in Japan. Now, he's been with this company a few years, has exponentially broadened his skills, and expects to make yet another switch within the next two years.

Still stunned to hear about this, in a country that values loyalty above almost anything else, I asked him to explain how his employers feel about his "job hopping." Taking a big long breath and exhaling it slowly, he said, "That's why I always go to foreign companies. They understand the importance of broadening my skills. Now, I could never work for a Japanese company."

I asked him to tell me more about that. He said, "I would never fit in with the corporate culture. You must become a loyal member of the company, and because I have switched jobs, I could never be considered a loyal member."

I continued to prod him about that corporate culture, and to explain to me what that meant, especially regarding promotions. He told me that, in Japan, everyone is hired straight out of college at around the age of 22. He went to the whiteboard and drew an explanation of the way the system operates. At the bottom of the chart was the 22-year-old employee (or "member" as Japanese call themselves). Then he wrote "38" above that starting point. "This is the age," he said, "when you can be considered for a promotion to manager." Above that he wrote "48." "This is the age when you can be considered for director."

"Do you mean that age is the deciding factor for promotion?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"What about merit? What if some guy, or gal, is a real hotshot or has an MBA? Does he or she still have to wait until age 38 to be considered for management."


So, this young man has decided to swim upstream, against the indoctrination of his culture which dictates that everyone swims together, side-by-side. He seems aware of his risks, but also feels that he can't go to a job everyday that he hates or that leaves his career stagnating. He's made a conscious decision to better himself, no matter what the risks.

That's why he's so intent on learning English. He knows that his survival depends on working for foreign companies. He accepts that he would never be hired by a Japanese company--even though he has bettered himself and his skills and could offer the company a truly determined and dedicated worker.

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