Wednesday, April 1, 2009

My Favorite Time of the Year in Japan...

The cherry trees are blossoming like white clouds all across the nation, which means it's hanami time. And hanami, as you know by now, are cherry blossom-viewing picnics where people congregate in great crowds in every available greenspace featuring cherry trees-- sakura in Japanese-- and get pleasantly blotto while basking in the mild temperatures and hazy sun of early spring. The days are pleasantly cool, the nights a bit chilly. But that's not why this is my favorite time here.

What I especially love about the first of April in Japan is seeing the groups of new company employees in their brand new black suits. You can easily spot them not only because of this particular businesslike uniform they sport, but because they're always together and they're so impossibly young and fresh-looking. They also have these semi-amused/semi-bewildered expressions because their new companies are blowing their minds on a daily basis with huge learning curves and almost all of them are scared shitless they're going to screw up and be sent home at any moment to live a life of abject failure.

But that rarely, if ever, happens. And, secretly, they know they're going to fit in and do what's expected of them. They've been practicing this their entire lives.

College is over, all the tests and exam-related anxiety is finished. Now comes forty or so years of virtually guaranteed employment for the young men, and two or three years of labor before marriage for the women. Occasionally, there are some young women who want to climb the corporate ladder, but it's pretty difficult for them. Last year, prime minister candidate Koike Yuriko said, referring to a recent American presidential candidate, "Hillary used the word 'glass ceiling'...but in Japan, it isn't glass, it's an iron plate."

I believe this is because companies expect merely to rent their female employees for a few years at most before weddings and babies. Some ideas are seemingly hardwired into corporate (and personal) philosophies in Japan, and this is one of them.

Another thing you may or may not be aware of-- In America, we apply for specific jobs, at any time the need for employment moves us; in Japan, you apply for companies, and job hunting is done at the beginning of your senior year in college. You're hired up to a year in advance and with absolutely no idea of what you'll actually be doing once you begin working. Graduate from college in March, start your job in April. Everything has its time and place in Japan, and schedules should be followed as meticulously as possible. Then, the company assigns you to whatever position they feel you're best suited for, or for whatever they need you to do, qualifications be damned.

And I've seen them every day this week. Eating my early dinner in a train station restaurant yesterday, a great parade of new company employees passed by behind me. One young guy and girl had paired off together and were cracking up over a private joke. I get a kind of contact excitement, by wireless transmission, by osmosis, when I see them and their new adult haircuts, their hopeful, unlined faces some still with a bit of baby fat, their crisp dark suits.

A new uniform for a new learning experience.

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