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Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008

MEDIA MIX

Graduates' security goes to pot


Last week, a 25-year-old University of Tokyo graduate was arrested for allegedly posting death threats on his blog. The police say that the man, who has been unemployed since graduating from Japan's most prestigious university, had written that he would kill members of the education ministry for misleading him about "reality," suggesting that he believed all his hard study had amounted to nothing.

It's tempting to speculate that the man's threats were a kind of copycat gesture following the murder of a former health ministry official and his wife several weeks ago, which may explain why the arrest was barely covered. The press inevitably takes the blame when copycat crimes occur, since such crimes are seen to be a result of sensational coverage. But what shocks most people when they hear the story is not the nature of the threats or their target, but rather the news that the young man who allegedly made them graduated from the University of Tokyo and remains unemployed. The reader wants to know more. Did he not receive any job offers, or did he refuse all the job offers he received? On the Internet there is some talk that the suspect studied law and failed to pass the bar examination. Still, the idea of a University of Tokyo graduate not advancing to some elite corporation or career-track government job contradicts everything the Japanese educational system stands for.

The incident was not mentioned in a Nov. 29 Asahi Shimbun editorial about naitei — the system of promising students jobs before they graduate from high school or college — but it could have been. The editorial reported that 331 final-year students who had been promised jobs by companies when they graduated have since received notices that those companies were withdrawing their offers. Asahi deplored the action, stating that such promises are contracts. The situation indicates the seriousness of the current economic downturn, but the Asahi sees it more as a sign of the breakdown of a larger social order. "These students feel betrayed by society just as they are taking their first steps as shakaijin," the editorial says.

The word "shakaijin" usually translates as "a full-fledged member of society," but practically speaking, it's used to describe someone employed by a company. The editorial goes on to say that "especially in Japan" the time immediately after graduation from high school or college is extremely important for the individual and will affect his or her life completely. The naitei disappointment is portrayed as a catastrophe that many of these students will not survive.

In an article that appeared in the same newspaper the same day, an unnamed university senior gave a press conference at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, where he and other students went to file complaints about companies that had promised them jobs earlier this year, but which have since changed their minds. "I've become really attached to the company," the young man told reporters. "I feel betrayed. My sorrow is huge." He said that he rejected offers from six other companies to take a job with a Tokyo condominium developer in the early summer, and even underwent a "naitei ceremony" on Oct. 1. A month later, the company called to say it couldn't hire him due to the the slumping real-estate market.

"I want to start working in April," the young man said, "but I can't find a job I like, so maybe I'll stay in school and look again next year." The implication is that this promising young man's life is over at a time when it should be just beginning.

It sounds like an overly pessimistic assessment, and doesn't take into account the fact that many new graduates change their own minds eventually. According to the widely held "shichi-go-san" ("7-5-3") theory, employers can expect 70 percent of junior-high-school graduates, 50 percent of high school graduates and 30 percent of college graduates to quit before their first year is up.

The government is already considering measures to punish companies that withdraw promises of employment and reward those that hire students who are victims of such broken promises. That's because the government wants to avoid the appearance of standing by while another "lost generation" is launched. Between 1994 and 2004, college graduates faced a tighter job market and now many of them move from one nonregular position to another. There is no reason to believe that those students or the current batch of grads are unemployable forever, but the idea that one's future is set in stone as soon as school is over is a difficult one to dislodge from the public imagination.

In any case, this way of thinking is connected to a corporate system that no longer applies. Traditionally, new graduates entered companies and went through long, expensive training programs. In today's economy, companies can no longer afford this kind of re-education. They need employees who are productive right away, and universities, which are dumbing down academic requirements in order to secure and keep students as their numbers decrease, aren't necessarily producing those kinds of workers.

In that regard, the belief that life begins or ends at graduation is a very limiting one, and not just in terms of employment. Lately, the police have cracked down on student marijuana use to boost their arrest records, resulting in more drug busts. These students are invariably expelled from school, which means in the scheme of things their lives are over. To put this news into perspective, on a recent talk show, former New York Times reporter Takashi Uesugi mentioned that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all admitted to smoking pot in university, and they went on to become presidents of the United States. Granted, they weren't arrested, but Americans accepted the idea that what happens in college stays in college.



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