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Society Report 7/29/95

A lot has been said about Japan's "lifetime employment" system both in The Japanese Company and in the seminars. This system is based on the concept that if an employee gives his life to his company, the company will in return give it back to him -- that is, it will take care of all his needs. In a sense, this lifetime commitment means that the employee ceases to be an individual and actually becomes a part of the company.

I have been observing workers both inside and outside of my company, looking for hard evidence that this phenomenon is actually occurring. But such specific, hard evidence is difficult to find. This is particularly because the Japanese quite often do not understand it themselves, since the mentality associated with this ideal is a normal part of Japanese life and therefore rarely a point of special study during their upbringing. However, to some degree or another, it appears that most Japanese companies of any great significance practice it.

This statement must be clarified. Japan's lifetime employment system is largely a Western invention, first suggested in a 1958 book by James C. Abegglen. In other words, Westerners observe it because it is so different from what goes on in their own cultures, and because it makes such an intriguing theme for reports and papers, they give it a name -- the Japanese Lifetime Employment System -- and suddenly outsiders are more aware of it than the Japanese themselves are.

It must be made clear that there is no such thing as a lifetime employment system, because there are no official rules concerning its implementation, and even if there were, there would be no agency to enforce it. The simple fact is that Japanese companies offer benefits to their employees that make it worthwhile to "stick around" until they retire, and those benefits typically get more attractive the longer they stay.