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The changing face of Japanese employment

Marina Kamimura

By Marina Kamimura
CNN Tokyo Bureau Chief

July 29, 1999
Web posted at: 10:02 a.m. EDT (1402 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

The way things were

The new kaisha

A generation gap

The new 'salaryman'

TOKYO (CNN) -- Unlike tens of thousands of Japanese workers recently forced out of work, Jun Kondo still has the job he's had for years, as a clerk with a major department store.

But that doesn't mean the restructuring wave that's overtaken many of Japan's biggest corporations will leave him unscathed.

Jun Kondo and his family
Jun Kondo and his family rent a two-bedroom apartment from his employer

Kondo knows that because of his employer's plans to cut costs, he will eventually have to move out of the two-bedroom apartment he now rents from his company. That means his rent will jump from around $125 a month to nearly $800, even though his salary won't change.

Japan is notoriously expensive. A look at the close relationship between employees such as Kondo and their "kaisha," or company, provides some insight into how workers traditionally have coped.

The average pay here for many jobs does not vary much from other industrialized nations. For example, a typical department store clerk here makes around $30,000 a year.

A key difference is that Japanese workers, notably the millions employed by the nation's biggest firms, have long been cushioned by a giant social safety net, one that's been carefully crafted by their employers.

"There's always been a mentality in Japan," said Kondo, "where the 'salaryman' has depended on his company or labor union for practically every aspect of his life.

"I am starting to think that I will not be able to survive in the future society simply by depending on the company."

For example, even though the going rate for his apartment is about six times what he pays, Kondo's $125-a-month rent is fairly standard for someone living in one of the thousands of dormitories maintained by companies all across Japan.

But perks such as that are among the first being cut as corporations look for ways to pare costs; some businesses are selling off real estate assets to try to stave off the effects of a drawn-out economic downturn of years.

"Because the economy has deteriorated so much, I presume companies can no longer do all the things they used to," Kondo said.

The way things were

Kondo works for Takashimaya. Established in 1831, it's Japan's oldest and largest department store chain, employing some 10,000 people.

It's a typical Japanese kaisha, proud of its tradition of going to great lengths to treat staff like extended family.

A recent walk through one of the three cafeterias in Takashimaya's flagship store in Tokyo's Nihonbashi neighborhood was revealing.

subsidized meals
subsidized meals
Employees still enjoy subsidized meals at work

Employees were dining on zaru-soba, a plate of cold noodles that's typical fare for a hot summer day. The cost: $1.25. At the average noodle shop in Tokyo, the same meal normally goes for about $5.

For only a nickel more, workers could buy a more substantial bowl of hot noodles and soup or ramen, a dish easily selling for about $6.50 elsewhere.

The new kaisha

Meal prices aren't set to change for now.

But under Takashimaya's restructuring plans, many of the benefits once considered part and parcel of the average employment package at a large firm will disappear.

Going the way of subsidized housing in dorms are other company properties, such as beach houses and mountain lodges, used by employees for retreats or cheap vacations.

Gone too are the in-house barber and dentist, who offered subsidized services.

As the economy has changed, the union that represents Takashimaya workers has worked hand-in-hand with management to replace such benefits with others considered more appropriate for a rapidly aging work force, such as better retirement allowances and more thorough annual health check-ups once workers reach the age of 40.

"We decided to put all the fringe benefits on the table and to reorganize them," said union leader Yutaka Yamaguchi. "Many things that were necessary once are no longer necessary today."

A generation gap

Kondo is 35. When he joined the store 12 years ago, he fully expected to receive those old-style benefits for the rest of his life, under the system of lifetime employment.

But as Japan's long recession and restructuring efforts take their toll, people are now entering the work force with notably different expectations.

Miki Harada, 23, started working in Takashimaya's interior department two years ago, fully assuming that she'll end up working for a number of different employers over her career.

Jun Kondo, Miki Harada and Yutaka Yamaguchi
Jun Kondo, Miki Harada and Yutaka Yamaguchi have had different expectations of their employer

Like many of her friends, Harada also has a different set of priorities from the generation before.

"Our parents were so-called 'company people,' who only thought of what they could do for the company, rather than what they could do for themselves," Harada said.

"For me, my career is important, but so is my private life."

Not everyone's so positive about the changes.

"There was no resistance from young employees," said Yamaguchi. "Fortunately those people took the measures positively. However, some veterans continue to complain that we've abolished valuable benefits."

Yamaguchi, who has been with Takashimaya since 1954, understands their predicament first-hand.

"It might be too sad to say, but I no longer expect much from the company, like I did when I was younger," he said.

The new 'salaryman'

As for Kondo, he's trying to make the best of the changes and taking the opportunity to re-evaluate his future.

His wife, a homemaker, expects it will be tougher to make daily ends meet. Still, Kondo says many of the measures being adopted by Takashimaya, like those at other flagship Japanese corporations, are positive for his lifestyle.

For one, Kondo says he'll likely be able to spend more time with his 4-year-old son, Ken.

"Japanese salarymen have to think more seriously about how they can maintain a balance between life as an employee, as a family member and as an individual," said Kondo.

However workers adapt to the changes individually, leaner economic times are not only influencing the way companies operate, but also the Japanese workers' way of life.

y: CNN's Marina Kamimura observes Japan's banking crisis sends ripples across the ocean -- October 30, 1998

More CNN correspondent analysis -- find by dateline
y: archives -- Asia-Pacific

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