A Manifestation of Collectivism
Japan is ranked as a collectivist culture by the well-known Hofstede Insights group, putting it at the opposite end of the spectrum from generally individualistic Western cultures. This measure is a product of the tendency of individuals in a culture to think of things in terms of “we” rather than “I,” and of the predisposition to consider the wider consequences to society of any given choice or action. This is actually a fairly common trait of many Asian cultures, but in Japan this collectivism manifests itself in a unique way.
In other Asian countries, collectivism can often be seen in a focus on and loyalty to extended family ties. In Japan however, the “in-group” of greatest importance is often found in the workplace.
In a more Western, individualist mindset, changing employment or even careers can be seen as entirely positive and an important part of finding a “best fit” for an individual – in America the average worker changes jobs 10-15 times during their career and changes careers 3-7 times. In Japan, such behavior might be seen as detrimental and as a blatant sign of disloyalty. In this group-focused culture, employment at one company from the time one graduates until retirement is not uncommon.
Employees are loyal to the company and work tirelessly for its wellbeing, and in return the company is expected to be just as loyal to its employees. For example, high-level positions tend to be filled exclusively from promotions within the company rather than outside hires, and a company will cut costs in every other way possible before laying off any full-time employees.
There are a number costs to lifetime employment, however, including a less agile and less responsive workforce. Additionally, while unemployment in Japan is incredibly low, many companies have to drastically cut employee hours to avoid layoffs. And even getting hired as a new employee in the first place is increasingly difficult in such an environment.