Kyoto University is a cross between a ghost town and a funeral parlor these days. There are very few students on campus and the ones that actually do show up are usually wearing black suits.
There are two reasons for the empty hallways and somber attire. First, winter classes have ended and spring break has begun. Second, it is now job-hunting season for the class of 2012.
Spring break is a misnomer in Japan. Spring break is not a vacation. It is a hellishly competitive and brutally stressful period of job applications and interviews. But it is not job-hunting season for students that will be graduating next month. It is job-hunting season for students that will be graduating next year.
They will go to dozens of interviews during the next couple of months in the hopes of signing a contract with a company one full year before they graduate. Students who haven't secured a job by the time the recruiting process ends in May will be out of luck by the time graduation rolls around 12 months from now.
Japanese companies like to hire far in advance and openly discriminate against students who are not new graduates. Students who missed out on this year's round of hiring will have almost no chance of getting a job next year because they will be trumped by fresh graduates. Their only option is to stay in school an extra year, take a part-time job or go on welfare. No freedom. No flexibility. No choice.
Japanese employers do not look kindly on Japanese students that take time off to travel or do odd jobs while "finding themselves" after graduation. This kind of behaviour, which can be framed as adventurous, independent-minded and well-rounded in the western world, is seen as immature, selfish and irresponsible in Japan.
Taking a year or two off to build up a resume overseas isn't going to put a Japanese student any further ahead in the job market back home. Most companies prefer to hire new recruits with zero work experience. Students straight out of school are seen as blank slates that can be easily trained (or, as a Japanese friend bluntly put it, "brainwashed") by the company.
For example, one of the guys in my graduate school got a job offer at a major investment company with a starting salary of $80,000 per year. He has no work experience but will be hired as an investment banker straight out of school. The company will send him to Hong Kong for six months of training. In return, he is expected to be a very loyal employee for a very long time. I swear he aged 20 years right in front of my eyes while he was telling me this story.
No one is forcing the Japanese students to hunt for jobs a year before they graduate. But they have very little choice in the matter. This is the way things are done. To not do it would be unnatural.
A portrait of the job hunt
The job hunting process in Japan is officially known as shushoku katsudo or shukatsu for short. It is a world unto itself, with a set of rules unto itself.
It is a grueling process that starts with attending job fairs, picking a company and submitting a resume. If your resume passes the initial screening, you will have a preliminary interview. If you pass the preliminary interview, you will take a written exam. If you pass the written exam, you will be called in for a group discussion with several other candidates. If you pass the group discussion, you will have an interview with HR. If you pass the interview with HR, you will get a second interview with middle management. If you pass the interview with middle management, you will get a third interview with upper management. If you pass the interview with upper management, you will get a final interview with the head honchos. If you pass the final interview with the head honchos, you may (or may not) be offered a job.
It's a long, slow process. The written exam to the final interview can take months. But most students don't just apply to one company. They apply to dozens of companies, which means they are constantly traveling to big cities, taking one exam after another, running from one interview to another.
The job hunters are easy to spot because they all wear the same "recruit suit." Although, technically, it's more of a uniform than a suit. White shirt, dark suit, and plain black shoes. No earrings. Minimal makeup. Black hair. Everyone dresses the same in order to suppress their individuality and show they can conform to the group -- a highly valued trait in Japan.
The pressure is suffocating. Job hunting in Japan feels less like cubicle shopping and more like coffin shopping. Of course, not everyone feels this way. One friend swears the process is fun -- she's having a blast wooing and being wooed by several different companies. I believe her. I was also eager to get out into the working world after my undergraduate degree. But after years of slaving away in front of computer, I've come to the obvious conclusion that there are few things in life more valuable than time. We have so little of it and I don't want to waste one second of it.
That's mostly why I have decided to opt out of the Japanese job-hunting process. Not that I had much of a choice in the matter. My age, my work experience, and my embarrassingly bad Japanese pretty much disqualified me from applying in the first place.
I could apply as a "mid-career professional" but I don't want to work in Japan. I don't want to live in a shoebox apartment over some neon-lit noodle shop in the middle of Tokyo's never-ending concrete jungle. I don't want to wake up at 5 a.m. to join the dead-eyed masses that limply allow themselves to be pushed into packed subway cars by men wearing white gloves. I don't want to spend 12 hours a day toiling at some company that does little more than help the capitalist world go round. I don't want to endure enforced drinking parties with male colleagues who turn into lecherous gorillas after two drinks. I don't want five days of vacation a year. This is not how I want to live.
I want an intellectually stimulating career that is in line with my values. A career that allows me to do some good in the world. I want to be an active member of the community. I want to get off work early enough to enjoy the sunset from my balcony. I want time to connect with friends and family. I want to live somewhere with easy access to real wilderness. I want to live in a place where the skyline is dominated by mountains, not skyscrapers. I want a job with a modest salary and lots of vacation time. I want a balanced life filled with meaningful work, healthy relationships, community involvement and lots of time to indulge in passions, adventures and hobbies. This is what I want.
And I don't think I can find it in Japan. It's a difficult thing to come to terms with because there are so many things I love about living in this country. But living in Japan as a master's student is a much different thing than living in Japan as a salaryman.
So I will watch my friends run from interview to interview. I will watch them go down one path while I head down a different one. They are getting ready to become full-fledged members of Japanese society while I am getting ready to leave it behind.