It would be a radical change. A combination of lifetime employment, seniority-based pay and intense worker loyalty to the company was credited for Japan’s postwar economic miracle, as stability and growth went hand in hand. However, when the Japanese economy stumbled in the early 1990s, companies found that Japan’s rigid labor practices made downsizing impractical. Instead, unneeded workers were left with little to do besides gaze out of the window, giving rise to the term madogiwa zoku or the “window seat tribe.”
Proponents of employment change say that stiff protections for workers have prompted companies to make major cuts in hiring, shrinking opportunities for scores of younger Japanese. Sony hired 160 fresh college graduates this fiscal year, compared with about 1,000 in 1991.
Companies have also adjusted by using a secondary class of temporary or part-time workers they can more easily let go.
“In reality, hidden inequalities already exist in Japan,” Osaka University economist Fumio Ohtake said.
Still, some fear that Abe’s changes are not so much pro-market as just pro-business. A weaker yen has brought exporters like Sony windfall profits, yet no substantial increases in salary have followed, and many manufacturers continue to shift production overseas.
The delicacy of labor changes has forced Abe to tread gingerly. He took the issue off the agenda when he focused on parliamentary elections last month. After a big win for his party, it is back. However, the new plan would ease firing rules only in Japan’s three biggest cities.
Japan’s biggest companies appear to be imitating Sony in its efforts to get workers to leave. Local media reports say many of them, including Panasonic Corp, NEC Corp and Toshiba Corp, use the oidashibeya, or “chase-out rooms,” and similar tactics. In May, the Asahi newspaper reported that an employee at a Panasonic unit was being required to spend his days in a room staring at monitors to catch any irregularities.
Last year, a Tokyo court ordered Benesse Corp, an educational services company, to reinstate a worker who claimed she had been required to do demeaning, menial tasks after resisting pressure to leave.
Panasonic could not be reached for comment over its summer holiday period. Benesse said it had since revised its personnel practices.
While details of the government plans are still being determined, Tani’s managers at Sony are already upping the ante. Starting this month, the company has ordered him to work 12-hour shifts on an assembly line at a Sony plant in Toyosato, more than an hour’s drive away. He says he will comply.
For Miwako Sato, who joined Sony right out of high school in 1974, the changes are a betrayal of an accepted social contract in Japan. She put in 12-hour shifts at the Sendai factory, working with huge rolls of magnetic film, and watched Sony grow into a global electronics powerhouse.
However, technology moved on, and Sony was increasingly usurped by nimbler rivals. In 2003, the factory offered the first of many early retirement programs.
Two years ago, a destructive tsunami swept through the factory, sending workers scrambling to the roof. The damage prompted Sony to move its battery and optical devices operations, and the company later sold its chemical products business, eliminating more jobs at the plant.