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Japan v. China: Who Has The Next 'Lucky' Generation?

Graduation at Waseda University in Japan
Graduation at Waseda University in Japan
Kondo Daisuke

TOKYO — Chinese boys and girls are often referred to as "Little emperor" or "Little princess." They grow up in surroundings with financial means where six adults are catering to their demands: they are the luckiest generation since the founding of modern China.

Yet few of them realize that there is an even luckier bunch of young people in a country not so far away: Japan. Why? For the simple reason that Japanese youngsters are a rare breed, that is there are so few of them, proportionally to the country's demography, that they can be compared to the number of pandas in China's Sichuan Province – a privileged species and "national treasure."

Japanese college graduates are churned out of schools around March 1st every year. Annual recruiting of Japanese enterprises usually starts around April 1st when crowds cheerfully flock to the "Hanami", the annual celebration for admiring the cherry blossom. So as not to "hinder" student's academic work in contacting them too early, Japan's colleges do not allow businesses into their campus before March to begin recruiting talent who will graduate the following year.

Since the market economy is run by supply and demand, the hunt for talent in said economy is no exception. As many of the top Japanese companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange market have hit a historic high this year, many plan to recruit a record number of young people straight out of school. In March 2017, there were only 567,000 Japanese graduates whereas China has 7.95 million, 14 times that of Japan. In addition, the number of Japanese graduates continues to decline each year.

Due to the situation, a new term has been born in Japan: the super seller's market. While the graduates are sellers of labor, enterprises are the buyers. And the graduates possess absolute market advantages. According to the data released by the Youth Employment Policy Office of Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, last year, as high as 97.6% of the graduates found employment. This is a record high with a year-on-year increase of 0.3%.

A common lucky charm in both Japan and China — Photo: Winkekatze

Meanwhile, competition between companies for luring talents grows fiercer. The following piece of news is an example.

On March 1st, the rooms in the high-end Ritz-Carlton Royal Hotel near Tokyo's famous Waseda University were fully booked by a number of enterprises. The reason why these companies are spending so much money is so that excellent candidates "can walk easily in three minutes' to the venue where companies introduce themselves.

Meanwhile, for even more prestigious universities such as Tokyo University, certain companies went as far as renting the whole of the university's cafeteria and provided free lunch to the prospecting graduates so that they could introduce their corporation to students.

I was spoiled in a similar way.

I give a course in international relations once a week at Meiji University, one of Tokyo's six best colleges. Last year, a student of mine came to ask my opinion about his future employment. I originally thought that he couldn't find the right offer and that he was soliciting a recommendation letter from me. Instead, his problem was that he had received four offers from prestigious companies that were calling him every day, begging him to join. What should I do!?

I was spoiled in a similar way as a graduate in 1989. It was when Japan's bubble economy was at its peak. Every evening, my senior schoolmates and I would call up companies after school. They would send along a trendy sedan to fetch us and bring us to their headquarters. After an hour or so of a corporate presentation, a manager would ask, "What would you like to eat tonight?" Without any false shyness, we'd say, "How about some sushi? Had French food last night…"

And then, abruptly, came Japan's "lost 20 years," where college graduates' job prospects entered the "ice age." So many young people were unable to find employment that many left to go somewhere else, like China or to Southeast Asian countries. I had thought what my generation experienced as Japan's golden period of employment would never reappear. But now, rather unexpectedly after 30 years, the golden years are back.

This, it seems, is mainly due to Japan's severely low birth rate and an aging demography. According to the statistics of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Japan has a population of 126.71 million of which 35 million are over the age of 65. They make up 27.7% of the population. Probably nowhere else in the world beats Japan on this point.

Foreign tourists in Japan often note with surprise that the passengers on a bus, the drivers of taxis, even people exercising in a gymnasium are all elderly. Nowhere, it seems, is a youngster to be seen.

Young people today don't really know what "competition" means. Even college admission can be easily obtained through the so-called "recommendation path" – since there are not enough high school graduates so every university fights to get them.

Having said all of this, not everything is rosy for Japan's next generation. Much was made over recent reports that starting monthly wages of college graduates today are between 200-250,000 yen ($2,360). This is the same amount as when I was graduating three decades ago. Meanwhile, it is Huawei, the Chinese multinational tech company who, entering the Japanese market last year, was luring the best Japanese talents with an offer like 400,000 yen ($3,780).

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