Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why I refuse to work in Japan

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.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Liquid pancakes

I found a vending machine in Kyoto that sells some sort of pancake-flavoured beverage. I didn't try it. Just looking at it made me want to vomit. I wonder if it tastes as bad as it looks.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Cigarettes and unexpected poetry

Japan is a smoker's paradise. The kind of place where you can light up in bars, restaurants and coffee shops. The kind of place where -- paradoxically -- it's against the law to smoke on the street but perfectly acceptable to puff away inside a McDonald's.

And should you doubt how pervasive smoking really is, let me quote from the 2011 Tokyo Marathon race guide, which asks participants to "refrain from smoking while running." Because, apparently, even marathon runners are chain smokers in Japan.

Everyone talks about how Japan's lax smoking laws are changing but I don't see it. It may be true that you can no longer smoke on most trains but some long-distance trains still have smoking cars. Last year, a new guideline (not a law, just a guideline) was put in place that "strongly recommends" employers to prohibit smoking in the workplace. But, as far as I know, the teachers at the junior high school where I used to work are still smoking in the staff kitchen. And while many restaurants have smoking and non-smoking sections, the dividing line between the two is usually invisible. It makes no sense. (But, then again, neither does Hello Kitty-branded booze. So I guess it's all relative.)

It's rare to see anti-smoking messages in Japan. Instead, anti-bad-smoking-manners messages are much more common. The biggest promoter of good smoking manners is Japan Tobacco, which created a series of ads to improve the image of smoking without (not surprisingly) actually discouraging smoking itself. You can find the ads in public smoking areas all over the country. They are plastered on ashtrays in train stations and outside convenience stores. There are more than 70 different ads in total.

The ads are interesting because they are so much more than just a plea for good manners -- they are a reflection of the Japanese psyche. In Japan, one must always behave honourably, even when smoking. To be rude or selfish is to commit social suicide. The ads hit where it hurts. But they do so in a way that is clever and unintentionally poetic.

I'm kind of obsessed with these ads. Each one contains an element of surprise and delivers an emotional punch. And they manage to do so with only a few well-chosen words and simple illustrations. It's not advertising. It's art.

I started taking pictures of the ads almost two years ago. Whenever I stumble across a new one, I take a picture of it. These are a few of my favourites.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Dude, where's my bike?

If there is one lesson I have learned during my time in Japan it's that a stress-free existence here requires a blind adherence to the rules and that you should always budget at least an hour for all matters bureaucratic. Okay, technically, that's two lessons. But rules and bureaucracy go hand-in-hand here. Japan isn't the Land of the Rising Sun so much as it is the Land of the Red Tape.

Take bicycles, for example. Bicycles are treated no differently than any other vehicle in Japan. The upside is that cycling is a very mainstream form of transportation. The downside is that there are just as many laws for cyclists as there are for drivers. A partial list of things that are illegal to do while riding a bike include holding an umbrella, ringing your bell repeatedly, listening to music, talking on a cell phone, being drunk, riding through a red light, riding without a light at night, riding on the sidewalk, and parking in a no-parking zone.

Yes, you read that last one right. It's illegal to park a bicycle in a no-parking zone. Break this law and your bike will be towed to the pound. It seems kind of funny and absurd (there are no-parking zones for bikes? They actually tow bikes? There is a bike pound?) until it happens to you.

I will come clean and admit that I knew I was parking illegally. Mea culpa. There were signs explicitly stating it was a no-parking zone. But I had no other option. There is almost nowhere to park in downtown Kyoto. Of course, you can pay to park at one of those fancy bicycle garages but, to me, paid parking goes against the spirit of cycling. The beauty of riding a bike is that you never have to pay for gas or parking.

I wasn't the only one parked illegally. There were about two dozen other bikes in the same (very wide and very open) spot. It was a quadruple-wide sidewalk, with more than enough room for wheelchairs and baby strollers. I figured it was a safe enough spot to park. Besides, I was only going to be gone for 10 minutes. I just had to run into the bank and I'd be right back.

This was my tragic mistake. I should have known there is no such thing as "just running into the bank" in Japan. This country has an uncanny ability to turn even the most mundane errand into a bureaucratic nightmare. Forty-five minutes after I entered the bank, I was still sitting with a teller going over a pile of paperwork. She wanted me to sign a piece of paper that, despite her patient explanation, I simply didn't understand.

She tried switching to English but the only word I understood was "mafia." I was pretty sure her English was mixed up so I asked her to explain in Japanese. This time the only word I understood was "yakuza." A light went on above my head. She wanted me to sign a form declaring that I wasn't a member of the yakuza (because, apparently, the fact that I have two pinkies and zero tattoos isn't evidence enough). She nodded enthusiastically while apologizing that she clearly knew I wasn't a member of the yakuza but she needed me to put it in writing anyway.

With the question about my ties to organized crime finally answered, I was free to leave the bank. And so I half-jogged, half-walked back to where I parked my bike because I was late for a meeting with the Japanese Mark Zuckerberg (a shy undergrad rumoured to be a computer genius, complete with standard-issue hoodie and baggy jeans) who was making a special trip to my lab to fix my computer.

But my bike was gone. All of the bikes were gone. It was as if someone had taken a giant broom and simply swept them off the face of the earth. There was nothing but a big empty space where the bikes had been. I cursed and swore. I cursed the stupidity of no-parking zones. I cursed myself for parking in a no-parking zone. I cursed the stupidity of the bank for making me spend an hour testifying that I was not a member of the yakuza. I cursed the fact that I was now going to be late for my meeting with the Japanese Mark Zuckerberg. I cursed having to waste half a day getting my bike back from the pound.

But I didn't have time to deal with any of that now. I took the train back to school and spent the next few days bike-free. It's funny how much of an effort walking becomes when you get used to cycling everywhere. Wheels are so much faster than feet. The other day, I walked to Mister Donut (which is the closest thing to Tim Hortons in Japan) and all I could think was, "Oh my god! This is taking forever!" Everyone always talks up the benefits of cycling -- it's good for the environment! It's good for your health! But no one ever mentions the sinister side of cycling -- it makes you lazy and impatient.

It was good to take a break from the bike but by yesterday, I'd had enough of walking. It was time to go to the pound. I was kind of excited about going to the pound. I have never been to a real pound before, especially not a bicycle pound. But first, I had to return to the scene of the crime to figure out where the pound was exactly. Luckily, the no-parking sign contained a helpful map of where the bikes had been towed to.

I should probably explain that a bicycle isn't towed the same way a car is. There's no tow truck with a steel cable hooked up to the bike's front wheel, dragging it through the streets. What happens is a pick-up truck with an extra-long, extra-wide bed comes to a stop in front of a bunch of illegally parked bikes. A group of guys jumps out and hauls the bikes, one by one, over to the truck before lifting them up to another group of guys standing on the truck bed, whose job it is to pull the bikes up and arrange them in neat lines. They do this very quickly and very efficiently. It's like watching a well-oiled assembly line.

Getting my bike back required two train trips. One trip to where I had parked the bike (to take a look at the map) and another trip to the pound (or, as it turns out, the middle of nowhere).

The train took me south of the city. To the part of Kyoto you won't find in any guidebook. Unless it's to warn you to avoid going there. If Kyoto has a "bad" neighbourhood, then this is probably it. It was industrial, ugly and bleak. Nothing but empty lots, run-down houses, and tall fences. Exactly the kind of place where you would imagine a pound would be located.

I spotted the pound right away. It was cordoned off from the street with metal sheeting and barbed wire. But this is where the similarities between the cinematic pound and the real pound ended. Instead of being lunged at by snarling rottweilers, I was greeted by a group of friendly old guys. They directed me to a shed near the entrance-way where another friendly old guy asked me to fill out a form. I had to write down my name, my address, a description of my bike (I wrote down "black"), where I had parked it, and when it was towed. After I forked over 2,300 yen (about $20) and showed some ID, another friendly old guy escorted me to a long line of bikes that had been towed on January 28 (they were all neatly arranged by date. After four weeks in the pound, all of the unclaimed bikes are hauled out and crushed).

My bike was in the middle of the pack. The guy waited for me to unlock it and then I was free to go. Lesson learned. From now on, I will blindly follow the rules and always budget at least an hour for all matters bureaucratic.