Sunday, January 25, 2015


The riff on Japanese universities: Hard to get in, easy to get out. You have to study an ungodly amout of hours during your middle and high school years to make sure that you know just enough to pass the ever-looming entrance exams, but once you're in, whoo boy. Join some clubs, show up to class, and you're pretty much set for the following four years. There's some truth to this, but there's also the reality highlighted in the current issue of AERA magazine (a Japanese newsweekly that's akin to TIME or NEWSWEEK), which is that the arc of one's life can be pretty much determined before you even enter that school. Meaning, getting into a good school equals entering an equally good company; accepted by a mediocre school, and you'll find yourself doing overtime in a ho-hum corporation; matriculating at a terrible school, and guess what? You can figure out the rest. Japan has a hiring system that's still rigidly systematic, and which classrooms you slept in as a sophomore matters quite a bit.

One of the articles in this week's AERA is titled: "Job-Searching Power Resides In The School That You Choose'. (Or something like that.) One of their graphs shows -- I think -- a listing of eighteen top universities and the leading companies to which their recent graduates entered. (Another series of graphs lists a number of jobs -- cabin attendant, lawyer, government worker, etc, -- and the particular schools whose graduates entered those chosen fields.) Corporations like Sony, Mitsubishi, JR (Japan Rail) Japan, NTT Telecom and Canon are greatly represented in almost every university's list.

The implications are pretty clear. When you go to a good-to-great school, good to great companies will hire you. Of course, this is true in Western countries as well; you have 'Harvard' or 'Yale' on your CV, and the odds are pretty good that you won't end up scooping ice cream. Yet there's still an enormous amount of other personal and professional factors in England or America or Canada that can sway a company to take a chance on one's skills or attitude. You might even email random people at the top and might even get a look if you have a bit of luck. In Japan, the hiring process is enormously rigid. Students in their third-year of university will buy their first suits and business-style skirts and begin attending numerous job fairs put on by various companies. (Unlike Western universities, in Japan, it's pretty much understood by all that most students are too busy looking for jobs in their third and fourth years to bother with all that academic stuff.) You usually choose which company you enter a year before you graduate; young Japanese are thus not just sent out into the world with a 'good luck!' and a smile the way that I was. Everything has a process, and you must follow it, period.

And part of that process is understanding that the university you choose to study at has either drastic or ecstatic implications for your future. If you go to an average school, the odds of you entering an above-average company are sort of pretty slim. This is not to say that it's a life-sentence; people do switch jobs with more and more frequency in Japan, but the system is still set up in such a way that your academic pedigree will play a large part in which place you will settle for. There are those who buck the system, becoming 'neets' ('not in education, employment or training'), or those who subsist on a diet of numerous part-time jobs, but for the great majority of ordinary people who want to earn a reasonably living in an extremely expensive country, the university that accepts you will also in some way make your life.

Of course, if this current issue of AERA is any way prophetic, the whole issue may be moot soon enough. One of the articles is about the 'robot revolution' that is occuring in Japan, with robots beginning to become more and more part of mainstream employment, not to mention domestic existence. Who needs young human workers when a robotic one works just fine?