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November 30, 2000

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AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek

MARCH 17, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 10

A S I A W E E K  S A L A R Y  S U R V E Y  2 0 0 0
Who Needs Life Employment?
Incentives are changing the way Japanese think about jobs


Meet Ogura Junpei, 21, a junior at Keio University. Like most of his fellow students, he is looking for a job after graduation. But unlike past generations of Japanese youth, he isn't interested in a lifetime match. "I'm not just looking for a job, but a place where I find it worthwhile to work." After months of searching and job interviews, he thinks he may have found what he wants in either a consulting firm or a foreign investment bank.

One might say that Ogura-san is a wee bit fussy considering he is entering a job market that has been relatively stagnant for several years. Only about a third of the nation's major corporations plan to hire new graduates this year. Yet even in recessionary Japan, a dual economy is emerging, the "new" one based on technology and the Internet and the "old" one on everything else. And the new economy is not only offering job opportunities but it is also changing the way people think about work.

The Guide
CLICK HERE for Asiaweek's Salary Survey 2000, ranked by country and by position

"The great brains that used to go into government and major corporations are headed for Internet businesses and will grow into a major force for the new economy of Japan," says Son Masayoshi, who became Japan's richest man as the legendary founder of Softbank, the Internet conglomerate. "When more and more young workers become [yen] billionaires [through stock options], Japanese won't think the same way about jobs and life any longer."

The former ideal of lifetime service with one corporation, steady advancement by seniority and rough parity in pay despite differences in performance grew out of the insecurities that followed Japan's defeat in World War II. For many Japanese lifetime employment still remains a goal, but increasingly many of the younger generation are wondering why they should have to wait years to enjoy the fruits of their efforts.

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Still relatively rare in Asia, companies are likely to start giving employees equity as an incentive to work better and stick with the job. Thank the Internet
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Thailand: What the Senate election means for political reform
Malaysia: Behind a debate on special privileges for Malays
East Timor: Why Falantil members are now rebels without a cause
Viewpoint: Vajpayee masks the fundamentalist threat

The Net: A geek summit in Taiwan
Computing: Hong Kong's hidden software industry
Cutting Edge: Simulating real life

Cash: With $1 billion, San Miguel goes shopping
Marketing: Notebooks as status symbols in Asia
Interview: Krung Thai Bank head says changes are coming
Investing: Mining resource stocks for profit

People: A*Mei drops pop for the classics
Entertainment: The hot spot for survival docu-dramas
Health: Protecting against Alzheimer's disease
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Their model may be Shigeta Yasumitsu, the 34-year-old founder of Hikari Tsushin, once a distributor of mobile phones but now the creator of an e-commerce empire. He ranks just behind Son among the country's wealthiest people. Hikari is attracting battalions of young employees - and not a few people in mid-career too - by dangling before them the prospect that they too may become billionaires through stock options.

There are plenty of other signs that Japanese think differently about their jobs, life and business. On a recent Saturday, for example, long lines led into the basement of a building in the Shinjuku district of downtown Tokyo. Inside, more than 50 foreign companies, most of them American or European, had set up booths. Hundreds of job-seekers, some even in the middle of their careers, circulated from one booth to another in the first big international job fair ever held in Japan.

In the past, young Japanese with ambition avoided foreign companies. Sure they often paid well, but they might also terminate you with little or no thought as to your circumstances. And it would be almost impossible to find a berth with a Japanese corporation, having earned the reputation for being something of a maverick, or, worse, a "job hopper." Now many young Japanese are willing to give foreign companies a chance.

Yokoyama Hitomi, 23, wants to find a job where she can use her English. She works for an Internet concern, but finds that even there the working conditions are antiquated. She has heard that foreign companies pay better and also offer the opportunity to work abroad. "It's no fun to limit my future only to Japan," she says. An electronics engineer with a major Japanese company in his late 20s is also looking for a job with an American or European company: "I'm suffocating from the rigid seniority system in my office."

Of course, other job seekers are looking to non-traditional employers precisely because some Japanese firms are beginning to abandon their seniority-based, cradle-to-grave employment practices. Under pressure to restructure because of the recession, some companies have cut back on automatic salary increases and reduced benefits. They have even done what was previously considered unthinkable: laid off workers.

What is left for the employees who remain are long working hours and an assumption of loyalty that is not necessarily reciprocated. The fall of such corporate giants as the Long-Term Credit Bank left many feeling that it was unwise to believe blindly in big-name companies. Consequently, "the merits of foreign firms grew more attractive," says Yamaguchi Tadaaki, vice president of Manulife Century, a Canadian insurance company.

Ogura had wondered how his father, a patent lawyer with a major Japanese manufacturer, might react to his career decision. The son carefully explained to his father the options, details of his salary and some of the other terms that a foreign company might offer. While not enthusiastic at first, his dad began to come around to his son's way of thinking. Indeed, he said: "I may start thinking about job hopping myself." And he wasn't just joking.

Illustrations by Emilio Rivera III

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