Shaken executives look for work as corporate cuts hit Japan

January 26, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- The large office on the 11th floor of a major Tokyo building near the Imperial Palace is like thousands of others jammed into Tokyo for the ubiquitous white-collar workers.

Through the window a crane can be seen moving girders for a vast new addition to city's skyline. An attractive receptionist sits near the door, younger employees work at computers in the middle of the room, and middle-aged men in conservative suits occupy the important space in the back.

Work, such as it is, for these men begins long after breakfast. "No one comes in early," says Masaharu Takahashi, the office chief. "These people are used to being executives."

Old habits die hard. For this group is awkwardly adjusting to a harsh new reality. They are the once rare, but now increasingly common species in Japan: unemployed executives over 40.

The Tokyo People Bank, as the Japanese name for the employment agency roughly translates, was founded in the 1960s. During the prosperous 1980s, it was a place to explore shifts in jobs to companies begging for employees.

Recently, though, companies have begun reducing mandatory retirement ages and sometimes just lopping people off -- just as has long occurred in America.

Teruo Kobayashi was one of a number of men stopping by early last week. He spent 20 years with Sperry Univac before a two-year shift at another firm that ended this summer.

"I was a systems engineer," he said. "Now I must learn how to re-engineer my family, my job and myself."

Some can't even bring themselves to admit the change. They leave for work in the morning, as always. In their briefcases are small square bentos, or lunch boxes, prepared by their wives. They come to the job bank, peruse any listing, and eat lunch quietly and alone at one of several work tables.

Prospects are tough. Although Japan's unemployment remains below 3 percent, it has been rising, and business executives admit to carrying numerous extra employees because of a reluctance to prune.

Western companies, particularly those in trouble, are less sentimental. More than 60 IBM employees recently opened accounts at the People Bank. As is always the case in a recession, the glut of job-seekers comes as the number of opportunities shrink.

Mr. Takahashi, director of the center, reckons only one in 10 white-collar workers will get a new job, and even then it will be at a drastically reduced wage. Most of the executives earn well in excess of $100,000 a year -- a great amount anywhere else in the world, but worth one-third or less in high-priced Tokyo.

Offers, says Mr. Takahashi, are typically in the $80,000-a-year range. "They can't live on it," he opines. Eager for work, some of the job-seekers grab at an offer, only to run into harsh objections from family members unwilling to accept the lower income.

Others are resigned to doing so. A nattily dressed man in a green raincoat and sharkskin suit is still employed as an executive at an auto parts manufacturer. He looks decades younger than his age, 56, but the mandatory retirement age in his company is fast approaching, and the answer is clear: Find other work.

What about the sharp reduction in pay? "I'd just be killing time in retirement anyway," he says, declining to give his name because of his continuing affiliation and an embarrassed awkwardness about looking for a new job.

There's little camaraderie in the office, but no indication of anger, anxiety, or bitterness either. Outward displays of emotion are almost non-existent and people tend to display only affection for their former companies. "They are educated to love it," Mr. Takahashi said.

Satoru Tanitsu is an example. He scrutinizes the plastic-encased listings with only modest hope. On Oct. 20, his 18-year tenure with a company now known as Comco Software ended, as it did for 100 other of the firm's 300 employees. It was the only place he had worked since college. As a single man who still lives with his parents, he said, he was particularly vulnerable to being cut because others weren't dependent on his income. "At first, I blamed the company," Mr. Tanitsu said. "Then I thought I hadn't done my best."

Wanted are executives who are highly experienced and willing to work cheap. Age is a big factor. Japanese firms frankly state the preferred age and gender of applicants, and the potential employers were frank in wanting someone as close to 40 as possible.

It also helps to be an engineer, or, surprisingly, a woman. Why? The job bank is for executives, and there are almost no female upper-level employees in Japan. Mr. Takahashi said the few who do show up have already succeeded despite such extraordinary odds that they tend to be unusually talented and confident. Typically, they have little trouble cracking the market again.

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