Are you ‘regular’? Probably not, if you were hired outside Japan, or female

shutterstock_69400045My first essay on Japan, a thesis for my Modern History & Economics degree, was on the day labourers in post-war Japan and the so-called dual labour market.  It’s with a sinking heart, nearly 30 years’ on, that I have to acknowledge that the concerns I had then, about the harm done by erecting an impermeable wall in a labour force between ‘permanent’ and ‘temporary’, continue to this day, when thinking about how to improve diversity and inclusion in Japanese companies.

The Japanese word for “regular” or “permanent” or “lifetime” employee is seishain.  The character for sei can also mean “proper” “right” or “honest” and shain means employee.  This says it all really.  Technically, seishain are people who join the company as new graduate hires, on or around April 1st, in a cohort.  They usually don’t have a formal employment contract or job description, but the unwritten agreement is that they will be rotated through a generalist track, and will agree to be moved to whatever location that might involve.  In return for this flexibility they are guaranteed management level jobs and salaries after a certain amount of time, and will not be forced out of the company until they reach retirement age.  Even when they reach retirement age, the company will make efforts to re-employ them, off line management.  The salaries may be modest, but there are plenty of benefits and the company union (membership is automatic for seishain) will protect them at least until management level.

There are no barriers as such to women (or non-Japanese) joining the seishain track, but very few do.  When I first started working at Mitsubishi Corporation in Japan, there were plenty of women seishain, but they had joined the administrative seishain track –  so-called Office Ladies – which meant that they had not signed up to be rotated or relocated and were therefore not candidates for management positions.

Like many Japanese companies in the 1990s, Mitsubishi Corporation abolished the Office Lady track, as it was becoming uneconomic to have so many administrative people on seniority based pay, and numbers were rising beyond what was needed for increasingly automated office support.  The assumption had been that women would leave as soon as they got married, or at least once they had their first child, but in fact women were getting married later or not getting married at all, or not having children, and staying at the company.

Once the Office Lady track was removed, if there was a further need for administrative staff, companies hired temporary workers to fill administrative positions. Similarly, for manufacturers in Japan there was a steady increase in the number of factory workers who were on short term contracts.  Overall, the Japanese workforce is now heading towards 40% being on short term or part time contracts.  But as I have written in a previous article, in some white collar sectors this actually led to too many disengaged support staff making too many errors, so some Japanese companies have quietly reintroduced the Office Lady track.

The assumption is that to become a manager, you need to have worked in several locations

Those women who were already on the old Office Lady track were offered the chance to shift into what Mitsubishi rather clumsily called “kouiki jimushokushou” which meant “wider area administrative roles”.  The “wider area” referred I think both to the idea that they could be relocated and that their job content might be broadened, as a path towards the management track.  They could undergo training and take various tests before making a full transition to management.

To this day, most Japanese companies operate on the assumption that to become a manager, you have to have worked in several locations and if the company is globalising, to have worked overseas if you want to be a senior manager.

So, you can probably see where this is going in terms of hitting Prime Minister Abe’s targets for the percentage of women who should be in management – even if there are plenty of women employees, most of them are not viewed as “proper” management material.  They are more often than not on part time or temporary contracts. I even heard recently about some Japanese women who were on the management track, who asked to be expatriated abroad (because they had already studied abroad or been brought up outside of Japan as child, so had the linguistic ability and resilience needed), but had their requests refused.  They then quit the company and moved to Europe or the USA under their own steam, to do MAs and MBAs, only to find male employees, sponsored by Japanese companies, on the same courses “learning to be global” but still far less effective than they were.

So, one solution might be for Japanese companies to track these women down abroad and try to lure them back into management positions.  Actually, some of them are consultants at the company I represent in Europe – Japan Intercultural Consulting. As my informant said, they might be open to moving back to Japan under the right circumstances, because many of them have older parents living there they feel obligations towards.  But they know that they will still somehow be regarded as not quite ‘proper’.

Another solution to making Japan HQ management more diverse, in terms of gender and nationality would be to have more non-Japanese employees in management positions there.  The official objection usually given to this is that there is too big a language barrier.  But of course the real issue is again that people hired abroad are not viewed as seishain. Until Japanese companies address this taboo on non-seishain becoming managers in more than name, the “inclusion” part of Diversity & Inclusion is a long way away.

For more detail on the technicalities of regular versus non-regular status in Japan, and how overseas employees might be classified, and some figures for the Top 30 Japanese employers in Europe, please see the next post.

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