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Sunday, Oct. 12, 2003


Young Japanese silently reject salaryman lifestyle

Government facilities are depressing places, but none are as depressing as your neighborhood unemployment office. That's why, in Japan, unemployment offices have been given the cheery, infantilized name "Hello Work," a term that conjures up visions of company presidents waiting at the entrance with job offers and smiles.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, Hello Work offices are notorious for being unhelpful to people who are, by definition, desperate and frustrated. Though Japan seems to have entered an era in which structural unemployment is a fact of life, the unemployed are still treated like lepers. Their bad luck is seen to be contagious.

Young people seem to understand this better than their elders. On Sept. 13, a Hello Work office in Shibuya held a special "School Day" event for teenagers. The office would give special explanations about job-seeking to junior high-school and high-school students. More than 70,000 posters were put up at local schools, and TV cameras showed up to catch Japan's future corporate warriors getting a taste of adult life.

But only five kids showed up, and four of them were essentially pulled off the street by desperate officials. The office manager admitted to reporters that the event was "a total failure," and that for future events the office will "try to get teachers to bring their students" to the office.

Obviously, young people have better things to do than think about their futures and, by extension, the future of Japan. At least that's the message the media convey when they talk about the job situation for young people. But things really are rough. The unemployment rate for males between the ages of 20 and 24 is 10 percent, and more than 13 percent for nonstudent boys between 15 and 19.

These rates apply to males looking for jobs, but the main idea one gets from the media is that the younger generation isn't interested in work the way their parents, who went through Japan's hallowed postwar growth period, were.

The word "freeter," which is used to describe a serial part-time worker, is derogatory, since it is commonly associated with young people who have no intention of settling down to a serious career. But the ranks of young freeters are growing daily.

Statistics point to a situation that's more complicated. Everyone knows that the job market is shrinking. Many of today's college graduates take jobs that, 20 years ago, went to high-school graduates. High-school graduates might take the jobs that used to be filled by junior-high-school graduates, but those jobs have gone overseas. However, according to surveys conducted by the Shokuba Jinken (Workplace Rights) Research Center, an NGO, the percentage of young people who quit within three years of finding full-time employment has remained the same since 1987, and, among some age groups, it's actually gone up.

Usually, when unemployment rises, the quitting rate goes down. According to the center, there are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, but the main one is that young people tend to quit regardless of the general economic climate because full-time work is rarely what they expect. Especially in Japan, where unions serve management and overtime is a norm, the shock of adapting to a career-track job can be disconcerting, if not downright bad for your health. That was true in 1987 and it's true today. The difference, however, is that the part-time job market is now much, much larger than it was 20 years ago.

This development is the ostensible reason for the new Watashi no Shigotokan, which had its grand opening on Oct. 4. Located in a remote education and research complex in Kyoto Prefecture, Watashi no Shigotokan (My Job Hall) is basically a theme park dedicated to the wonderful world of work, offering young people hands-on experience in various job situations, as well as lectures and resources for finding employment.

The premise is that if you build it young people will come, but, as the Shibuya Hello Work official came to realize, the Shigotokan managers aren't taking any chances. They're asking educational institutions, from elementary schools to high schools, to bring their students to the Shigotokan on school trips as an alternative to, say, Tokyo Disneyland.

Among the facilities are re-creations of kitchens, assembly lines, broadcast studios and textile mills, as well as train-operating and firefighting simulations, all of which are meant to get students excited about careers.

It's likely that most students would rather go to Tokyo Disneyland. The Shigotokan's reason for existing is mostly bureaucratic (Asahi TV's talk show "TV Tackle" characterized it as yet another self-justifying white elephant public works project), but it nevertheless adheres to a concept of work that no longer applies. The assembly line attraction, for instance, is for bicycles. Bicycle assembly lines went overseas years ago.

In any case, the Shigotokan doesn't tell the students everything. It doesn't tell them about overtime, overbearing bosses or the pressure to conform. It doesn't tell them they have rights as employees, or that their lives outside the workplace are just as precious, if not more so, than their lives inside it. It simply tries to get them to think like the people who helped Japan become the second-biggest economy in the world. Those days are gone, and it seems that young people realize that.

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