The Japanese work force explained. Although in the Netherlands, job positions are pretty cut and dry, in Japan things are not always as straightforward. In this posting I will explain the different positions one may have and the implications of being labeled by Japanese labour law.
Never considered a “real employee”
Some foreigners when working at a Japanese company in Japan, consider one of their greatest experiences of culture shock involved the discovery that they are not considered a “real employee.” Despite working just as hard as their Japanese colleagues,they have been hired into a different category, which implied a very different degree of future prospects. While their Japanese colleagues were seishain, which can literally translated as “real employees,” they were merely a shokutaku, or contract employee.
In United States business as well, there are “regular employees” and “contractors.” The difference with my experience in Japan is that at the time of hire, one is given a clear understanding of which category they are able to join and what the implications are. Whereas in Japan, it might be not so straight forward and you might not be considered a part of the Japanese company’s “corporate family” to the same degree as your Japanese peers. As a shokutaku, there is no possible career path for promotion, nor is there any real assurance of a future in the company. This would be true as well for contractors in the United States or Europe. However, in some Japanese firms, the seishain category is open only to Japanese. In the west, that would be considered discriminatory. While there are some exceptions of Japanese firms who employ non-Japanese as seishain, most notably Sony, in most cases non-Japanese still are automatically relegated to the seishain category. Despite years of loyal service producing excellent results, some non Japanese are not able to make the switch from shokutaku to seishain – there is simply no precedent or mechanism for it.
Being placed inside the box
Human resource management practices in Japan seem to place great emphasis on putting employees into categories. Not only is there the seishain/shokutaku distinction, but there is also usually a distinction between jimushoku and sogoshoku. The former are employees, mostly women, who perform administrative tasks and have a limited career potential. The latter, mostly male, have the potential to move into the management ranks. The distinction between these two categories is quite rigid, despite the fact that they often do similar work, and in many cases the jimushoku are the ones who are really holding things together. If one wants to switch from jimushoku to sogoshoku, if such an option is even available and is not openly discouraged, it requires jumping a hurdle such as passing a test. Until this practice was recently made illegal, for years many Japanese firms prevented many women from opting for sogoshoku positions by requiring that those of sogoshoku status be willing to be transferred anywhere within the country at any time, something unappealing to most women, who in Japan often prefer to live with their parents while single and after marriage would be reluctant to live apart from their husbands.
From an western perspective, the strict distinction between different categories is difficult to fathom. In the Netherlands, although there are indeed differences between standard employees and contractors, there is no equivalent to thejimushoku/sogoshoku distinction. The emphasis is much more on the job than what category the employee is in. And because there is a lot more fluidity in the labor market, and no promise to regular employees that they will not be fired if they perform badly, there is not as great of a real difference between regular employees and contractors that there is in the Japanese context.