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College Students Protest on Japanese Employment @ TOKYO

Categories: East Asia, Japan, Protest, Youth

Spurred by a protest late last year [1] by a small number of college students in Hokkaido Prefecture, a number of students in Tokyo organized for a demonstration protesting against Japan's employment system.

Coming together under the name “College Graduates Protest on Japanese Employment @ TOKYO” (就活くたばれデモ@TOKYO [2] [ja]) , the organization process was started from scratch, using Twitter [3], blogs, Google Groups [4]2ch threads [5] and posters [6] at universities. The protest occurred on the 23rd of January at Mizutanibashi Park (水谷橋公園 [7]). At press time, there were [8] around a hundred participants with more showing interest. There were about a dozen participants [9].

The protesters revolved around the following messages:


※ Bring to attention the impact of early job recruitments on the life of a college student!
※ Reprimand the recruiting (referral) agencies that take advantage of job seeking students!
※ Where is the responsibility of archaic employers!?
※ If graduates can't find employment right out of college, it is impossible to get a decent full time job any time thereafter!?
※ Get rid of simultaneous recruiting of new graduates [10]!

The last point above is the most important one as it relates to the other four points. Japan has an atypical employment system [11] where seniority is deemed more important than actual job skills. This is maintained by having employees work for the company for their lifetimes – from graduation to retirement.

The new graduates are trained as non-specialists to work for the company instead of the job itself, in exchange for the promise of a high salary in their later years. Mid-career or even post-graduate job candidates were seen to disengage the finely tuned system. Before the seniority system was implemented, Japan had high unemployment rates and the structure added [12] [ja] due stability, efficiency and perks (companies take care of welfare, leisure, insurance, etc.) to the workforce.

However, the rapid economic growth became unsustainable in recent times. The seniority system meant that with the aging population, there was a higher proportion of the workforce “promised” a higher ranking job. Combined with the economic collapse, there are less positions for older employees available. Since it is difficult to fire older, higher-paid employees, the onus is cast upon the young, via lower salaries or temp jobs. In recent years, a third [13] [ja] of college graduates quit their companies reportedly because they are doomed of advancement whether it is through aging or by getting results. Once one is off the rail of lifetime employment, it is difficult to recover.

This topic has been discussed extensively in the past two decades, yet change has been slow and the public has been quiet [14] (except for maybe the violence at Akihabara [15]). Let's see what the blogosphere thinks about the college protests in a culture where perseverance perseveres.

Blogger kanedo thinks [16] [ja] the message outputted by this protest vilifies the corporations too far and argues that the real problem is with the system. Both the job seeker and the employer are acting upon its own best interests that incur an incompatibility between the two players.



For example, let's say one student proclaims, “a major part of college life shouldn't be taken up by job searches; therefore, I will look for jobs later than my colleagues.” Then he is disadvantaged in the recruiting process because other students have a head start on gathering information and experience. Now let's say one company says, “I'd like a college student to focus on his/her studies; therefore, we will start the recruiting process later.” Now the company is in an unfavorable position because all the ‘best’ students are already taken.

Once a bad equilibrium is established, it is not rational for one player to try and move to a good equilibrium, even if it exists. This situation is famously called ‘the prisoner's dilemma’ in game theory.

Blogger elm200 comments [17] [ja] on the article above:


The entry above argued that “since it is a structural problem, making noise about it is of no use”, but I don't think it's necessary for young people to wise up so much. Yes, it is an impossible structural problem in the employment process, but it's important to raise our voices as a first step.

Blogger ruushu points out [18] [ja] that the job openings and job seeker ratio of college graduates (this includes graduate students) is 1.62 for 2010. He argues that this number is actually not that bad and that if one wants to really change the job hunting process, one should enroll at Tokyo University and become a politician.

Below, I plotted the ratio of job openings and job seekers for graduates using data [19] [ja, pdf] from the Works Institute [20].

大卒求人倍率 [21]

Blogger amamako sees a trend [22] [ja] in the blog posts about the protest. One segment of bloggers feel that the protesters should quit complaining and get a job; another segment of bloggers mention statistics on employment and think that the accusations of protesters are overstated. However, none of them take in the big picture and mention that these status quo spirit did not fix the “lost generation” of the 1990s or 2000s. He asks that since everyone agrees that the employment system is broken, why not work together to think of better ways to inform the public and make changes?


As people are making the “if you have time for protests…” type of complaints during the “lost generation,” we are coming to the brink of another “lost generation.” Are people going to make the same old arguments? You would have to be super optimistic if you think this strategy will work this time around. The self-responsibility, self-help “lost generation” have clearly failed. It is only rational to change strategies to avoid the same mistakes again.