TOKYO — Foreign firms doing business here find it difficult to lure bright young employees away from Japanese companies, even through enticements of higher pay and greater authority.
Most Japanese workers, foreign firms have found, shun what is considered the risk of going to work for a foreign boss, preferring instead the so-called lifetime employment system that has prevailed in Japan since after World War II.
"After 26 years' business here, we often cannot find people we need in our Tokyo office," says Ayako Kega, a spokeswoman for General Electric Japan.
"The pool of Japanese white-collar workers who change jobs is very small. Foreign firms are competing to win a limited number of experienced Japanese who go from one foreign firm to another."
Under the lifetime employment system, employees of large corporations are guaranteed jobs until retirement, a steady and predictable rise in income and position and social acceptance within the company family.
Little Change in Attitudes
A recent Ministry of Labor survey on employment attitudes found that the number of Japanese who thought about changing jobs last year had increased only 0.7% over a five-year period to about 6% of the work force.
Job security, company loyalty and a fear of being stigmatized were cited in interviews as among the reasons that Japanese are more reluctant than workers in many other industrialized societies to move from company to company as part of career advancement.
"Employees have always wanted to be assured of their jobs," said Fumiaki Saito, an official of the Labor Ministry's Employment Policy Department.
Kega said Japanese "basically think a foreign company easily closes a Tokyo office and lays off employees whenever business declines."
Tamio Kubota, 38, an assistant manager of Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank, Japan's biggest bank, said he was offered jobs by American banks while studying business administration at Yale University's business school in 1977-79 on a company scholarship.
"I believed it was my duty to go back to my employer, who paid tuition and all the expenses for the two years," he said. "Besides, working for a foreign establishment means becoming an employee required only for their East Asian department, doesn't it? They wouldn't take you seriously as a candidate for the future board of directors."
Other recruitment experts point out that although young Japanese are more mobile than in the past, a stigma is still attached to switching jobs. "When someone left the bank, we used to say he must have been fired because he stole money," Hiroshi Kamada of the Dai-Ichi bank said.
An official of Nissan Motor Co. said the company, Japan's second-largest auto maker, expects employees to stay until they retire. He said tenshoku, the Japanese word for changing jobs, is still "almost a taboo."
Kazuki Danbara of the U.S.-based security firm Drexel Burnham Lambert (Asia) said his company has placed ads, used "headhunters" and adopted Japanese-style company assistance systems for its Japanese staff, "but it's not an easy task to find Japanese for our office." The more adventurous, however, often find the switch to a foreign firm rewarding.
'Small Cog in a Big Wheel'
Tadashi Kunimoto, 34, said he was a "small cog in a big wheel" before leaving Japan National Railways last October to join an American consulting firm. Kunimoto's previous job relocated him every two years, and once he had to live away from his family for more than six months, a common plight of company men in Japan.
"I feel more alive here, and of course my salary has increased," he said.
Eicoh Taira, 47, is also atypical, honing his public relations skills over the past 25 years in jobs at Northwest Orient Airlines, Citibank N.A. and, for the past five years, at Bank of America in Tokyo.
"I have been convinced that one should determine his abilities and test them whenever a chance arises," he said. "But Japanese companies tend to value team play rather than an individual's performance and have failed to take advantage of the hidden potentials of its employees."
The Labor Ministry's Saito said this tendency may be changing as a surplus of college-educated young people see fewer chances of advancing through normal company hierarchies.
"Figures do not show it, but I can perceive a gradual change in the employment system," Saito said, adding that "the pace looks very, very slow."