“Over the past several years, Japan has changed dramatically”

A positive outlook

Three directors at Bilingual Recruitment Solutions see changes for the better in Japan’s labour market


Text by James Douglas /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

For years, Japan has been accused of not changing fast enough. Many bemoan factors such as the nation’s shrinking population, its outdated patriarchal business world and the sluggish economy. However, three directors from Bilingual Recruitment Solutions (BRS), the international arm of the recruiting giant Persol Group, have a more positive outlook.

“Over the past several years, Japan has changed dramatically,” says Ash Elfadeli, director of BRS’s IT Division. “The government and the business world are finding real solutions that are moving the country in the right direction.”

Significant change takes time. And when the rate of change is slow, it’s easy to overlook the positive changes that are actually occurring.

“Japan’s job market, education system, national pension system, economic growth, immigration — so many things are deeply affected by the declining birth rate,” says Aiko Tokuhisa, director of the Commerce & Industry Division at BRS. “As professionals within the recruitment industry, we have seen the direct effects that the declining population has had on the job market, but in the midst of this, we are also seeing something unexpected — a jump in the number of people in the workforce.”

At the beginning of March, the government released the latest labour market statistics, which showed unemployment had fallen another 0.3% in January to a 25-year low of 2.4%. According to the data, there were 920,000 more people employed than in January of last year, pushing the total number up to 65.6 million. These numbers show that companies are still finding the professionals they need.

“It’s true that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics is helping to stimulate the job market but, more importantly, I believe there has been a fundamental shift in society,” notes Jonathan Hughes, director of the Corporate Services Division at BRS. “There have been huge advances in trying to close the gender gap, for example. Public announcements by government officials about the need for change in this area, as well as the launching of various initiatives, are making a difference.”

According to Hughes, many corporations have implemented internal regulations to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity for career growth — something that was accomplished without the need for any legislation.

“We’ve also seen a shift in women’s career aspirations,” says Tokuhisa. “In the past, societal norms had limited what a woman could achieve, compared to a man, in corporate Japan. Today, these walls and glass ceilings are being broken at a surprising pace. With an increasing number of female role models in management positions, more and more women are striving to get into the boardroom.”

More than 40% of employees at Persol Group are women, with many holding management positions. Additionally, more than 95% of the firm’s female staff members who took maternity leave have returned to work; nearly 100 women made use of the system in 2017.

Another shift the BRS directors have seen is that work-life balance has become a primary concern for employees over the last few years.

“We have witnessed this personal policy blossom into a critical deciding factor for professionals seeking a change in employment,” observes Elfadeli. “So much so that it has become almost as important to job seekers as the company they are applying for, or even the job itself.”

Over the last 20 years, large corporations have invested heavily into employee programmes that reward highly productive employees. Additionally, some companies offer perks such as free lunches and relaxation or sleep zones. While not all of these fringe benefits for the Japanese work place have made their way from Silicon Valley to Japan, the idea that work can be enjoyable is beginning to take root here.

“We are seeing corporations working hard to create systems that work for the employee, rather than the other way around,” Elfadeli adds. “Companies are starting to advertise flexible working times and locations, relaxed dress codes, maternity and paternity leave and that no overtime is required. This is a massive change, and the Persol Group is right there, leading the way.”

The recruitment firm offers its employees a flexible working environment that includes educational support, child-care leave and programmes for travelling sabbaticals.

“Another positive change we’ve witnessed is the increase in flexibility companies are showing when hiring,” says Hughes.

According to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, there are 1.43 job vacancies for every jobseeker in Japan, and more than two job vacancies for every jobseeker in Tokyo. With that supply and demand imbalance, companies understand the challenges that exist and are loosening some of their requirements.

“We are now seeing companies implement training programmes that will supplement the non-essential but previously required skills,” Hughes adds. “This has resulted in a positive increase in hiring for our clients — and a positive change for the country.”

While the rate of change may continue to be slow, the future of Japan’s labour market is undoubtedly bright. 

“We are seeing corporations working hard to create systems that work for the employee, rather than the other way around”