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Chasing Japan

June 02,2018
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Nahm Yoon-ho
*The author is the Tokyo bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

June in Tokyo is hot, but young people can often be seen on the streets wearing full black suits. They are college seniors attending job interviews and visiting career fairs. Their stiff attire has earned them the nickname “recruit suits.”

It is widely known that employment is easy in Japan. According to the Recruit Works Institute, companies are hiring 814,000 college graduates next year. And yet, there are only 432,000 graduates. Companies are short 382,000 people.

That gap is about the same number as the entire population of unemployed Koreans in their 20s. Perhaps this is why my friends in Korea are increasingly contacting me to talk about their children. They often wonder if they should send them to Japan because finding jobs in Korea is so difficult.
From the statistics, it might look like Japanese companies are effortlessly recruiting college graduates, but the reality is somewhat different. It is still hard for job seekers in Japan, not because there are no jobs, but because finding the right job is tough. Experts call it “frictional unemployment.”

Companies open recruitment websites on March 1 to start the hiring process en masse. Resume screenings and aptitude tests take place through the end of May. In June, interviews are held. The schedule is recommended by the Japan Business Federation, but it is no longer observed. Many companies hold interviews in April and May under the guise of seminars, roundtable discussions and networking sessions, and companies complete their list of recruits around that time. By May, over 40 percent of positions are already set. This practice has been criticized as a “false start,” but companies say they have no choice if they want to secure talented people.

For most job seekers, the process is still difficult. They send applications to 20 to 40 companies. Companies send emails to failed applicants with the message, “We wish you the best in the future.” The applicants call them as “wish emails.” There are still many job seekers receiving such emails, indicating a job crisis even amid a flood of jobs.

The situation is triggered by applicants’ preference for conglomerates. The average ratio of job openings to applications at companies with less than 300 employees is 9.91. That means that there are 10 job openings at a typical small company, but only one person is applying for them. The ratio at conglomerates with more than 5,000 employees is 0.37. While there are 51,000 conglomerate jobs, there are as many as 139,000 applicants.

Of the 2,086 companies listed on the top tier of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, less than 500 are conglomerates with more than 5,000 workers. The chance of landing a job there is slim for applicants, but that does not mean getting jobs at small firms is easy, either. Because companies are only hiring a few people, a mismatch often takes place. A confectionery in Tokyo was hiring four to seven people, but more than 16,000 applied for the opening.

There is also discrimination based on which university you attended. It is called the “school filter” because companies screen applicants based on where they went. There is quota for prestigious schools and some universities targeted as favorites. In one opinion poll, 75.7 percent of the job seekers said they felt discrimination based on their academic background.

That, however, sounds like a luxury for Korean youngsters who are suffering a job crisis. In Japan, many opportunities are available when you lower your standards and make proper preparations. There is no disagreement that the current employment boom is a result of Abenomics. Shinzo Abe’s administration never pledged to create a certain number of jobs. It just concentrated on macroeconomics and enacted aggressive monetary and fiscal policies. The goal was economic recovery, and jobs were the outcome.

But when jobs are seen as ways to make ends meet, you just end up doling out more subsidies. That is the Korean government’s policy. If jobs are seen as a means to create added value, the policy will be different. There will be more jobs when companies make more and sell more.

When youngsters, who need to learn, fail to have career experiences for years, they fall into a lower level of social class. According to Statistics Korea, about 400,000 of these people are at risk. If the situation stays the way it is, the income gap will further widen.

Even in Japan, youngsters who have failed to find jobs in the recent crisis have been forced to work part-time jobs, and they are still living poor lives. They are called the “lost generation,” and whether in Korea or Japan, this loss is a heavy obstacle slowing down the economy.

Despite the government’s enthusiastic efforts to boost jobs, the outcome is disappointing because the methods are wrong. Realizing that there is a problem is the beginning of resolving the situation.

Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon will soon visit Tokyo to deliver a lecture at an event hosted by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. He must walk around the streets. He must see the young job seekers in their recruit suits, the fully-booked restaurants and stores filled with tourists and the construction sites for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. There are many signs of a recovering economy here. Kim must receive a dose of reality from the dogmatism shown by President Moon Jae-in’s inner circle. If there is any more delay, it will truly be too late.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 1, Page 31