chapter  2
15 Pages

The dialectics of change

Introduction A major aspect of the institutional character of employment practices is their embeddedness in Japan’s society. This holds in particular for lifetime employment, defined as ‘the practice whereby a worker is hired immediately after school and is expected to stay with the same firm until retirement’, while ‘[t]he firm, in return, is expected to retain him until the age of mandatory retirement (typically 55 to 60) regardless of business conditions’ (Odagiri 1994: 48). The concept was introduced by Abegglen (1958) who spoke of ‘lifetime commitment’ but it became known as ‘lifetime employment’ (shūshin koyō) after the Japanese translation of his book. Since Abegglen (1973), lifetime employment has usually been presented as one of the ‘three pillars’ that embody the unique character of the Japanese employment system. The second pillar of seniority wages (nenkō jōretsu) means that wages and promotions are dependent upon seniority. This practice will be a major topic in the later chapters as the introduction of performance-related pay directly affects seniority as the main criterion for remuneration and promotion. The third pillar, enterprise unionism (kigyō kumiai), ‘implies that all the employees of the firm, including both blue-collar and white-collar workers but excluding those in managerial positions above a certain rank, are presented by a single union’ (Odagiri 1994: 49).