Ramen chain widens definition of ‘new graduates’

October 20th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

That's using your noodle: Korakuen in Akihabara

That's using your noodle: Korakuen in Akihabara

On the surface, there isn’t much to distinguish Korakuen from other chain Chinese food restaurants. The company, which is headquartered in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, operates 430 outlets, mostly in the Tohoku and Kanto regions. Their fare is pretty cheap, maybe cheaper than most Chinese restaurant chains, with prices for ramen ranging from ¥290 to ¥600. And like other companies in this line of business, Korakuen’s workers are mostly part-time and non-regular, which describes about 8,000 of its 9,000 employees.

However, on Oct. 14, Korakuen issued an announcement that sets it apart, not only from other chain restaurants, but from most Japanese companies in general. Starting in spring 2012, the company will recruit and hire as full-time, regular employees new graduates (shinshotsu) of universities, junior colleges, vocational schools and high schools who matriculated from their respective institutions in 2009, 2010 and 2011. To anyone unfamiliar with Japan’s traditional employment system, this will hardly sound remarkable, but to most Japanese people it’s nothing short of revolutionary.

The transition from educational institution, regardless of the level, to workplace right after graduation is so strictly circumscribed in Japan that anyone who fails to make the transition in a timely manner can be expected to fail in life. That may be a dire explanation of the process, but right now university students who are planning to graduate in the spring are desperately trying to line up employment. In fact, given the situation in the job market right now, it may already be too late.

Members of the class of 2011 with any sort of foresight probably started looking for work a year ago. It’s generally thought that grads who don’t secure a full-time job with a good company right after leaving school find it more difficult to land good jobs in the future – unless, of course, they already have skills that are in demand, but one definition of Japanese university grads is that, by and large, they leave school without any skills. Skills are what you learn by working, which explains the process. Japanese companies are not necessarily looking for workers with specific knowledge or degrees. They are looking for bright young people who can be indoctrinated into their particular corporate culture. In other words, they are looking for “new” people with potential. That’s why when you join a company after college or high school, you are called a shakaijin (member of society).

Of course, the employment situation has changed greatly over the past 20 years. More and more employers use non-regular workers to cut down on costs. Full-time, regular employment is getting harder to secure, but the recruitment style for full-time, regular employees remains pretty much the same.

What makes Korakuen’s gambit noteworthy is that they will start treating people who graduated up to three years prior to a particular spring hiring season as shinsotsu, assuming that they haven’t been hired as full-time workers in the meantime. In fact, even people who graduated in 2010 are being considered for 2011 along with this coming spring’s crop of shinsotsu. Though it sounds like little more than redefining the nomenclature, Korakuen’s policy is in line with the new government’s efforts to open up employment opportunities to more young people. Reportedly, the Democratic Party of Japan is talking to Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) about a major overhaul of the recruiting and hiring systems.

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