Young Japanese trapped by outdated work culture seek greener pastures abroad: ‘I want some freedom’

During Shigeno’s hiring process, the company reassured him it wanted employees to enjoy a work-life balance, but that did not last long, he said. “At the beginning, it was not too bad, but now I’m doing a minimum of 60 hours of overtime a month and it can go up to 80 hours.”

To add insult to injury, he said, only the first 40 hours of overtime were paid, with the remaining classed as “service overtime”. The same system operates across virtually all Japanese companies.

“The pay is no better than at companies in the US or Europe, but I’m so busy during the week that I just don’t have time to do the things I want, while at the weekend I have to study,” he told This Week in Asia.

Shigeno’s employers expected him to obtain three additional professional qualifications yearly, with the only study time being the weekends, he said.

People wait in front of an electronic stock board showing Japan’s Nikkei 225 index at a securities firm on Monday. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more young Japanese are leaving to seek employment abroad. Photo: AP

His fiancée, Nagisa Ota, is similarly tired of her company and is open to the idea of going elsewhere. For her, however, the reasons are slightly different.

“I just do not feel that this is the job for me. I completed an internship in Australia and attitudes towards work in other countries are just completely different,” she said.

“There, nobody thought about the job outside work hours or at the weekends, everyone left the office on time and work was not the focus of their entire lives. That’s how it is here and it’s not what I want. I just want some freedom.”

There are no government statistics available about the number of young Japanese who leave their jobs to seek employment abroad, although anecdotal evidence would suggest that it is becoming more common.

Why are Japan’s workers reluctant to take paid leave?

Martin Schulz, chief policy economist for Fujitsu’s Global Market Intelligence Unit, argues it may actually be beneficial for young Japanese to go abroad for work.

“I would say that for some years now, too few Japanese have been moving overseas because as our world comes closer together, we need young people to go abroad, obtain new skills and perspectives and discover how things are done differently,” he said.

“Too few Japanese experiencing the world beyond Japan is holding the country back,” he added.

Developing their capabilities in a completely different environment will allow adventurous youngsters to become leaders equipped with new understanding of global business if they come back to Japan in the future, or act as go-betweens for Japanese firms looking to take their products and services to new markets, according to Schulz.

“These people can be energised to be the innovators of the future, and that will be positive for Japan as well,” he said.

Office buildings are illuminated at night in Tokyo. Young Japanese who have spent time abroad say they are shocked by the different attitudes towards work in Japan and Europe. Photo: Bloomberg

‘Trapped in a tiny world’

Shigeno’s youngest brother has already made the move abroad and is completing a course in furniture design in France. Since he moved to Europe four months ago, he has indicated that he is unlikely to return to live in Japan again. And others look set to follow suit.

Emily Izawa, 21, is in her third year at university in Tokyo and starting to look for a job, but was shocked at the different attitudes towards work after spending two months in Europe this summer.

“In Japan, virtually everyone joins their first company believing that they will stay there for the rest of their careers, but I learned that is not the way that Europeans look at their futures,” she said.

“From talking to people, it also became clear that a person is promoted in a European company based on how good they are and it does not matter how old they are, what university they want to or their gender, and that is quite different from Japan as well.

“But the foreign way is better because it encourages people to do their best for the company and be rewarded fairly,” she said.

Two young women outside Shinjuku station in Tokyo. Women in Japanese corporations often find it difficult to balance a career and family and have to sacrifice one for the other. Photo: AFP

Izawa said she also sensed that women were able to better balance a career and family, while women in Japanese corporations often had to sacrifice one for the other, and many corporations were reluctant to promote women because they assumed female employees would leave after getting married.

She also found the way that people talk to each other, even in a business setting, refreshing after the staid and overly formal way that Japanese talk to each other.

“I work part-time in a coffee shop and I was really surprised to see staff and customers just chatting away as equals when I was in England,” she said. “That is just not possible in Japan, but I thought it was more comfortable.”

Fluent in English, Izawa is presently considering jobs in the travel industry as soon as she has graduated and hopes that will enable her to be based overseas.

Her older brother, Issei, is also looking to find work outside Japan but has taken a slightly different approach by joining a major international hotel chain as a junior manager with the intention of transferring to one of the company’s foreign properties after he gains a few years’ experience.


Overworked to death: Japanese teachers battle for change as several die from exhaustion

Overworked to death: Japanese teachers battle for change as several die from exhaustion

Alyssa Hirata lasted 18 months at her first Japanese company after graduating before she quit.

“For me, it felt like I was getting trapped in a tiny world in Japan and I wanted to travel and use my English skills,” she said. “I want more than Japan can offer me.”

Hirata, 23, is taking a course that should lead to a career as a cabin attendant with an airline and is hoping to find a job with a foreign company.

“At my previous company, for everyone around me, the job was their entire life,” she said. “I just couldn’t understand that and I broke all the unwritten rules, like leaving every day exactly on time. My colleagues said I was brave but I just didn’t care; I want to be able to have my time with my friends and family.

“Japan is just too conservative for me; I want to be able to decide my own future and the best way I can see of doing that is to work abroad,” she said.

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