Hundreds of young Japanese are getting pink slips before they even start work.
Japanese companies, contending with plummeting sales and shriveling profits, are withdrawing job offers to university and high school seniors.
Anywhere else, the news might be shrugged off as the predictable consequence of an economic collapse. In Japan, it's sending shivers across the country, raising fears that another "Lost Generation" of young Japanese will be locked out of good jobs forever. "Whether they get a job when they graduate decides their whole life," says Yuki Honda, a professor at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Education.
That's because Japanese companies typically hire only fresh graduates they can indoctrinate in their corporate cultures, figuring anyone with experience elsewhere might bring bad habits. Students who don't have jobs waiting at graduation risk getting stuck with a lifetime of low-paying, dead-end employment.
Now that Japan's economy has sunk back into recession — output fell at a terrifying 12.7% annual pace in fourth-quarter 2008 — Honda and other analysts fear a repeat of the "employment Ice Age" of the 1990s, which froze a generation of graduates out of full-time employment.
"It's a disastrous situation," Honda says. "There will be another Ice Age."
Hiroki Iwabuchi has felt the chill. During his final weeks at Tohoku University of Art & Design in Yamagata, he regularly skipped an architectural design class to do something he loved: produce a documentary film about his senior year.
Playing hooky set off a chain reaction that ended Iwabuchi's career before it began. He ended his final semester three days short of the required attendance, was barred from graduating and forced to re-enroll for another term. That cost him a job that was waiting for him at a publishing company.
Now 26, he's been locked out of full-time work ever since, laboring in a succession of go-nowhere jobs: working for a moving company, trying Internet sales, handling frozen pork for a meatpacker, sticking lids on printer cartridges for Canon, never earning much more than $24,000 a year. "The system is not fair," Iwabuchi says. But "I blame myself" for squandering an opportunity for full-time employment.
Japan's economy has produced more than 17 million Hiroki Iwabuchis — "non-regular" workers toiling in part-time, contract or temporary-agency jobs. Easy to fire, these chronic part-timers are absorbing the shock of Japan's downturn: The government estimates that 158,000 have lost their jobs since October.
When they first attracted attention in the late 1980s, irregular workers were viewed as social rebels, opting out of the dreary, 60-hour workweeks endured by corporate Japanese "salarymen" to enjoy flexible hours and undemanding jobs. The Japanese, who habitually absorb and transform foreign terms, started calling these outsiders "freeters" — combining the English word "free" with a German word for worker, arbeiter.
But what looked at first like a liberating social change proved to be the beginning of a wrenching economic transformation.
Changes prove rough