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Reviewed by:
  • Perspectives on Work, Employment and Society in Japan
  • Marcus Rebick (bio)
Perspectives on Work, Employment and Society in Japan. Edited by Peter Matanle and Wim Lunsing. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2006. xiii, 271 pages. $85.00.

The last few years have seen an outpouring of books examining how much the "Japanese economic model" has changed.1 There is a general consensus that the 1990s and 2000s brought major changes in Japan but that Japanese economic institutions have maintained a distinctive character. The employment system is one example. The 1990s saw large-scale job cuts (although much was done through early retirement and attrition) and a sharp rise in the unemployment rate, especially noticeable among the young and more poorly educated. Although youth unemployment and withdrawal from the labor market have been features of most industrialized economies, Japan seemed to have been immune to these problems until the 1990s, when they suddenly came to the attention of the general public. Nevertheless, some of the well-known features of the Japanese employment system such as long-term employment for core employees appear to have survived thus far.

This edited volume examines contemporary employment practices and attitudes toward work in Japan from differing disciplinary perspectives. Many of the articles in the book examine whether long-term employment practices will survive in Japan even as they highlight the changing meaning of work, especially for the young. Others are less concerned with change and look at particular niches of working life, the most focused of which is an examination of Filipino boxers and bar hosts working in Japan.

After a brief introductory chapter, the book opens with a broad overview of the Japanese employment system by economist Franz Waldenburger. He looks at the main characteristics and economic performance of the employment system since the 1950s, and comparisons are drawn with the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. At the end of the chapter, the author briefly surveys some of the changes taking place in Japan, including the increase in nonregular employment. He concludes that employers are less willing to invest in their workers' skills than in the past and that new types of skill formation paid for by the worker will need to be developed to [End Page 236] replace the in-house training that has been provided so far. This objective will not be easy, however, as the development of occupational labor markets will be necessary if workers are to be motivated to pay for training themselves. Workers must also begin to see themselves as owners of skills rather than members of companies.

This fits in well with the chapter by one of the editors, Peter Matanle, who examines the changing discourse on work in Japanese society. He finds from an examination of company documents, popular books, and company interviews that the attitudes of workers are changing and that young workers in particular are more apt to be concerned about finding work that is personally fulfilling: job security in itself is no longer the main goal. However, he believes these needs can still be met within the firm if a variety of challenges are offered to the worker through his or her career. Matanle concludes the long-term employment system can survive and indeed agrees that the evidence seems to suggest it is doing so.

Three other chapters in the book concentrate on changes in the working conditions and pay for the salaryman. Harald Conrad and Viktoria Heindorf look at the introduction of pay-for-performance and changes to pension arrangements. Leo McCann, John Hassard, and Jonathan Morris assess the impact of corporate restructuring on the working lives of middle managers. Kevin McCormick surveys the role of Japanese engineers working in Japanese subsidiaries in the United Kingdom. One of the main themes that emerges from these studies is the increased pressure on the worker. Middle managers are under greater pressure to achieve productivity gains, while some form of performance-related pay has been introduced in most large companies.

Despite the fact that long-term employment survived the pressures of the 1990s, there are sources of flexibility in the employment system that are becoming more important. Helen Macnaughtan looks at one of these...


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