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Japan jobs treadmill grinds down workers and firms

by Madeleine King

TOKYO, February 1, 2012 (AFP) - Third year university student Saki Fujii flips through a meticulously kept diary of her six-month job hunt and eyes the busy week of interviews ahead -- another step on the treadmill for one of Japan's would-be workers.

The 22-year-old knows her best hope of finding a full-time position is by doing exactly the same thing as those before her, in an unending round of interviews, job seminars and employment fairs.

"I don't think it's necessarily a good thing that everyone takes part in the job hunt," she says. "With so many students looking to be recruited at the same time, we can't really expect to be employed at the company we want to work at."

She is following in the footsteps of generations before her -- but a few corporate exceptions are now beginning to offer a different path.

Like most of her fellow students at the prestigious Waseda University, Fujii's school life was one long slog of exam cramming.

Straight after high school she started university, where her first two years were taken up with mandatory courses. Her third year is almost completely dedicated to the job search, and her fourth will concentrate entirely on her final exams.

If all goes well she will leave university in March 2013 and start her working life as little as 10 days later.

Over the last 50 years the system has churned out a particular kind of employee, one that helped build Japan's post-World War II economic miracle but then presided over two decades of stagnation and low growth.

Kazuki Kurosawa, general director of non-profit organisation Young Job-seekers Support Association, said the old recruiting methods worked in the past.

"When companies had to employ a large number of people (during times of economic growth), they hired a bundle of new graduates with an unspoken promise of securing their jobs until the legal retirement age."

Now many companies cannot afford to change the selection system and its regimen of seminars, interviews and training programs, he said.

"Under such a rigid hiring system, it is hard for the labour force to flexibly adjust to market needs," he added.

But for some of Japan's most vibrant companies, the uniformity is becoming off-putting.

With a greying and shrinking domestic market for their goods and services, they are looking for candidates who can offer something a little different; something that will help them compete on the world stage.

It is a big ask of a hidebound education and employment system.

Relatively few Japanese students travel overseas for extended periods, and a falling number of them choose to study outside the country, partly for fear of losing their place on the recruitment merry-go-round.

But corporate success story Uniqlo, one of Japan's fastest growing international retailers with operations in 12 different nations, is actively seeking employees who can offer something extra -- often experience abroad.

The firm wants "people not necessarily with more proficiency of a certain language but with the good knowledge of countries they will work in eventually", explained Yukie Sakaguchi, spokeswoman for its parent company Fast Retailing.

Uniqlo will join e-commerce giant Rakuten in switching its internal communication language to English by early 2012.

Rakuten "wants people who can be active internationally with business skills and language skills", spokeswoman Yuki Tokaji told AFP.

Instead of using the traditional recruiting formula, both Uniqlo and Rakuten have started schemes offering undergraduates part time work and internships to try to identify such abilities in possible future employees.

Those market needs are beginning to send ripples of change through Japan's corporate and academic world.

Business leaders welcomed a recent announcement by top flight Tokyo University -- placed 30th in the Times World University Rankings -- that it is mulling moving the start of the academic year from April to the autumn.

The switch could let students take some time out after high school, and Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), said they could "develop various skills by being engaged in volunteer activities or taking training programmes overseas".

But for the current crop of would-be employees, such ideals are a long way off.

Back in her apartment, Fujii says travelling or volunteering would be a good experience that would undoubtedly help with her job hunt.

"But I just don't have the time," she laments.

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