The Institute of Social Human Capital in Tokyo is an unusual sort of business-training school. Those who attend it have mostly quit or taken redundancy packages from big Japanese firms, and are trying to start again. Shedding the habits of a lifetime begins by breaking down barriers: former salarymen laugh nervously as they share a bento-box lunch with strangers, blindfolded.
The way to prepare them for a second career is to get them interacting as individuals, not as corporate workers, said Matsuhiko Ozawa, one of the Institute’s directors.
In a country that sets great store by formal introductions, the students have not exchanged business cards. Names, titles and personal information are banned (they use made-up names) to avoid reproducing the old office hierarchies that exist outside the classroom. “We start from scratch and help these people find themselves again,” Ozawa said.
For years, the salarymen rode a career escalator that rewarded them less for skills than for loyalty and doggedly hard work. During the postwar boom years, firms took on workforces of permanent employees, who were hired for life, said Naohiro Yashiro, a former economic policy adviser to Shinzo Abe, the prime minister.
In return, the employers’ extravagant demands had to be met. Salarymen could not refuse a transfer — often at a few days’ notice — to a subsidiary hundreds of miles from home. Children grew up largely without fathers. Work, rather than family, was the main supplier of emotional support.
Full-time Japanese employees still clock 400 more hours per year than their counterparts in Germany or France, said Kazuya Ogura, a labor specialist at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Yet for many, lifetime employment is ending earlier than it used to, because many companies cannot afford such workers all the way to retirement. The system worked well when people lived until around 70, Ozawa said, but many firms are now offering permanent employees generous packages to leave early.
Hiroyuki Ito, a student at the institute, stepped off the salaryman escalator at the age of 45, after 23 years at his firm. He quit because the work was boring. “You don’t get to take risk or have adventure,” he said. He now hopes for a second career as a teacher.
Ex-salarymen usually come twice a week for five months to shed their old mind-set. After decades of monotonous overwork, that must seem like the twinkling of an eye.