Japan’s Employment Recruitment System and its Impact on Academic Standards
Volume 14, Issue 2 (Discussion 3 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 29 July 2014.
This article addresses the uniqueness of the Japanese employment recruitment system and the influence it exerts on teaching standards at tertiary education. It argues the current system has contributed to a reduction in incentive for academic pursuit, and is a major contributing factor to the present situation of university students being rewarded graduation based primarily on attendance and performance on perfunctory examinations, rather than as a reflection of academic achievement. Despite widespread acknowledgement of a lack of academic vigour at Japan’s universities (Yomiuri Shimbun, 2008), expectations, academically, are modest for students whose goal is the act of graduating in itself. More strikingly, few demand change to a system which fails students and perpetuates low education standards in higher education.
Keywords: university education standards, employment recruitment.
Despite continuing economic austerity following the 2008 global financial crisis, motivation to pursue academic endeavour for intellectual betterment, rather than improvement of employment prospects, remains the main incentive for attendance at UK universities (Times Higher Education, 2012). During the 3-4 years at university, independence, knowledge, and social skills are combined in an academic environment to reward young people with the capabilities to be able critically to evaluate and formulate appropriate ideas and opinions. These represent the skills employers, and society as a whole, expect graduates to be equipped with when they enter the workforce. Such goals are, however, rarely applied to Japanese university graduates, as the robust academic rigours are rarely sought and even less importuned. More revealingly, demands to raise academic standards are seldom proposed for an education system disregarded for its application of teacher-centred instruction and student propensity to regurgitate ‘correct’ answers. Undergraduates do not demand more challenging curricula, content as they are with opportunities to engage in individual pursuits after the demands of entrance exams. Likewise, Japanese employers make no such demands, as a graduate’s major seldom determines his or her role within a company. Furthermore, faculty, who view GPA grades more as a reflection of teaching performance than actual student ability, likewise make no such demands. Among these three groups, lack of exaction from employers is the most influential in perpetuating low standards of education, and the reason is inextricably linked to the country’s employment recruitment system. Consequently, the time spent at university in Japan is widely viewed as a leisurely hiatus that allows for the fulfillment of less academically-orientated activities before the demands of Japan Inc. take precedence.
Unification of labour source
The introduction in 1895 of collective hiring (by two prominent Tokyo companies: Nippon Yusen and Mitsui Bank) aimed at reducing the influence of personal connections and nepotism in securing employment. Previously, recruitment had occurred, as it does in almost all countries,1 in response to the natural turnover of the workforce. Subsequent labour shortages following World War I, however, led to companies starting to approach university students before graduation had been completed. Continued financial uncertainty from 1927 resulted in an agreement between several major banking corporations and the Ministry of Education, leading to the establishment in 1929 of the first “fixed employment” prototype (teiki saiyou). This allowed the securing of recruits needed to ease concerns over the scarcity of manpower, and was officially deemed redundant once economic recovery had been achieved by 1935. However, defeat in World War II and the demands of the Korean War necessitated a resumption of collective hiring throughout the period of rebuilding the physical infrastructure and subsequent modernisation process to allow the country to compete with increasingly powerful rivals.
Competition to secure the most desirable graduates evoked university complaints that early recruitment practices unduly interfered in students’ ability to complete their education. To minimise this disruption a government committee (consisting of universities, the Japanese Business Federation, and the then Labour and Education ministries) established the first recruitment schedule agreement in 1953. Clearly stipulated were starting dates for company seminars, interviews, and official offers, in addition to the period for employment exams (up to January of the year of graduation). Contrary to the agreement, repeated early poaching led to its annulment in 1962, resulting in further increased competition to secure the brightest (the so-called aotagai or early recruiting), and increasingly earlier approaches made to seniors. Revival of the agreement (1972) again specified dates but similarly business eagerness led to ‘unofficial’ job offers being made between February and May, again resulting in annulment (1997). Currently, an ethics charter (published annually by the Japan Business Federation) on recruitment ‘requests’ companies to voluntarily refrain from interviewing until after December 1st. In line with historical precedence and reflecting the demographic realities of a decreasing pool of talent the agreement it is widely flouted.
Implications for university standards
Ease of graduation is evident during submission of final grades by faculty in early February. Having already secured employment offers, pressure to pass even the most academically ungifted students is noticeable from registrar requests to allow make-up exams or submission of supplementary reports; laden as they are with subtle hints that responsibility lies with the university, and applicable accommodation must be extended to ensure maximum graduate numbers. Graduation rates of over 90% (Ministry of Education, 2012), cited as evidence of academic performance, more revealingly illustrate an inclusive policy of almost guaranteed graduation (OECD average graduation rate: 69%; UK: 78%; US: 63%) yet contribute to the prestigious employment rate(shuushoku-ritsu) which reflect a university’s ability to guarantee employment. What the figures fail to incorporate, however, are those students who have dropped out or have decided to re-sit the final year, resulting in an artificially high and wholly inaccurate figure. With all universities deliberately massaging their data, a lack of credibility and trustworthiness consigns them to prospectuses along with similar vacuous marketing slogans.
Relaxation of university accreditation requirements (Accreditation and Evaluation of Higher Education, 2003) encouraged local governments to provide financial support to private educational organisations as a means of reducing youth migration away from provincial areas. The resulting increase in the number of universities (from 523 in 1992 to 783 in 20122) was cited by the then Education Minister in her refusal to approve three new accreditation applications in 2012. This increase (in predominantly private universities), coupled with demographic trends,3 has exacerbated the financial burden faced by many tertiary institutions and resulted in acceptance of candidates, regardless of academic ability, in order to satisfy enrollment requirements.
The period between official graduation and commencement of employment allows a final chance of autonomy before the responsibilities of full-time employment commence. For recipients of official job offers it provides a final window of personal indulgence; for those yet to have secured a position, pressure compels acceptance of offers due to limited options rather than alignment of occupation and company aspirations—a contributing factor to the one-third of new recruits leaving a company within three years of entering (see Graph 1.).
Through natural attrition a small percent of new recruits are expected to leave a company as part of the natural turnover (UK: 12% within 3 years, 2011). In Japan, the lifetime employment system demands loyalty above all else. Employees who have decided to leave a company (regardless of circumstance) will find little sympathy at future job interviews. Unlike their Western counterparts, attempts at justifying changes as a career choice are simply unaccepted. Applicants will have already been categorised as someone whose ability to conform and be subservient to the company is in question—the quality above all being sought from employers. For these reasons the implications of choosing the most suitable company contribute to a period where job hunting takes precedence over all over considerations.
Incentive to study
Pressure to secure employment (exacerbated by the low ratio of job offers to applicants: 0.8 for 2012 compared to 1.04 in 2007) during the prolonged economic downturn commences early and contributes to a stressful and demanding period for seniors. Demands for handwritten4 resume submissions and job fair attendance consume much time and finance, often resulting in increased absenteeism during the first semester of the final year. At a time in Western universities when academic content and critical-thinking are being reinforced, the priority at Japanese universities is wholly less academic-orientated. Similar indifference to academic performance is reflected in companies’ weighting of academic performance (i.e. GPA), in many cases academic transcripts do not have any bearing on final hiring decisions. Considering that a person who took five years to graduate would be considered equally with a straight-A student who graduated in four years, no intrinsic motivation to excel academically exists. The act of graduating is the determining factor, with students selected not on academic performance or relevance of their major, but largely reputation of the alma mater. The large number of people involved in the recruitment process raises questions regarding how accurately recruiters can evaluate students’ strengths and weaknesses. Group interviews only allow several minutes for them to appeal resulting in only a superficial evaluation. This is compounded by the formulaic responses students have memorised, which, although complying with the information that is expected, reveal little of their personality The hiring is to the company rather than a specified position within, further reducing the need to specialise and develop expertise in a particular field.
With little incentive to excel, students perform a ritual of attending lectures without the taxation of having to acquire the knowledge or expertise to be able to apply it intuitively to develop a deeper understanding. Despite repeated business federation surveys (2008, 2011) listing the skills most sought by employers (communication ability, independence) it seems incongruous that graduates who have fostered and trained these skills post-graduation (i.e., study abroad, NGO volunteer experience) are denied equal employment opportunities. Change in this area has been forthcoming recently with several forward-looking companies (Mizuho Bank, Takashimaya, and Dai-ichi Life Insurance) adopting a more inclusive hiring process which extends equal consideration to students who have graduated within three years.
With the reputation of higher education in Japan seemingly undermined by its employment recruitment system, few international students choose to further their studies at Japanese universities. Although the language barrier is a significant factor, without considerable government scholarships many choose countries with a more demanding and ultimately rewarding research environment. Attracting the increasingly affluent Chinese market of fee-paying foreign students will require the quality of education offered to be significantly improved to rival their preferred choice of the USA. International students have a vested interest in seeing that the skills and knowledge required to give them an advantage in an increasingly competitive world which demands academic application that cannot be found in Japan. Surprisingly, the number of international students has actually continued to increase and allowed the government to reach its goal of attracting 100,000 international students by 20125. This figure has now been increased to 300,000 by 2020 as part of Japan’s Globalisation Project. Analysis of the figures show that 97% of those who choose to study in Japan receive financial aid from the Japanese government scholarship fund.
Public universities in Japan may point to the respected annual ranking of the top 100 universities and the frequent presence of Japan’s two most renowned universities (Tokyo University and Kyoto University). The USA dominates the ranking with 53 entries followed by the UK with 9 universities listed. The hierarchy is completely reversed away from larger countries to ones with smaller populations when considering the number of institutions per capita. For Japan it reveals that two entries in the top 100 universities, per-capita ranks it second from bottom. This is the reality higher education in Japan has to tackle in order to make the location more attractive to international students.
The restricted age-range for Japanese university students6 illustrates that higher education is a rung on the ladder between high school and joining society. Very few mature students decide to complete their education after starting work, and new graduates are almost exclusively 22 years of age. Recent student campus protests against the recruitment system do not address employer reluctance to change a system which serves their hiring requirements so efficiently.
*The banner calls the job hunting system a senseless system.
The inflexible nature of Japan’s employment recruitment system dictates that economic and social realities are relegated to the practicality of securing a company willing to embrace and protect new graduates for their entire career. Whether they possess the required skills, knowledge, or desire is largely inconsequential. It is for these reasons that the system has been repeatedly criticised as merely allowing companies to economise on recruiting and wholly detrimental to the standard of education at higher education. The primary responsibility for universities is to foster student competitiveness and provide educational opportunities to allow them to meet the demands of an increasingly international and competitive work environment. For this to occur, allowing students to focus on knowledge and skill acquisition without distraction is essential and should be the main priority while in higher education.
Government of Japan. (2102). Ministry of Education: Accreditation and Evaluation of Higher Education「高等教育の認証評価について」Tokyo: Ministry of Education.
Government of Japan. (1985). Historical Transitions in Living Standards 「生活水準の歴史的推移」Tokyo: Japanese Government.
Japanese Business Federation. (2011).
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2013). Education at a glance 2013. OECD Social Indicators. Paris: OECD.
Times Higher Education Students Survey (2012) Times Higher Education Supplement.
Yomiuri Shimbun (2008) Nobel laureates criticise the Japanese education system.
 Japan and South Korea are currently the only two countries who adopt a collective hiring system.
 77% of universities in Japan are private (11% national, 12% state). The compares with 20% in the USA, and 3% in the UK. [Japanese universities:86 national, 92 public, 605 private].
 46% of private universities in were under-enrolled in 2012—including 18 that were below 50% full enrollment.
 The ease at which application forms can be completed by computer does not impart an applicant’s true feeling and character and so all application forms have to be hand-written.
 This figure represents less than 1% of students in Japan, much less than the 5% in the USA.
 US mature students account for 8% of the student body.
Article copyright Chris Burrows.