‘Tis the season of the sakura, the cherry tree blossoms, in Japan. Everywhere you go, trees are blooming in pink or in white, and people are busy making plans for their hanami parties: picnicking under the trees.
But around this time of year there is a different kind of blossom happening in Japan, a man-made one. Just as with the cherry trees, if you walk around Tokyo these days you cannot miss it: hordes of young women and men clad in white shirts and black business suits.
As with many other things in Japan, job hunting for university students is a structured (read: rigid) process. The process is called shukatsu katsudo and its rigidness derives from the age-long practice of big Japanese firms to hire new employees at the same time every year (shinsotsu ikkatsu saiyo), around the start of the new fiscal year on April 1. All university students start their job search at the same time, and they all obey the uniform dress code of black suits and white shirts/blouses, the “recruit suit”. They all read the same job-hunting textbooks and recite the same answers during the interviews.
Individuality is notoriously absent among Japanese. As every Japanese child is taught at kindergarten: “deru kugi wa utareru”, meaning “the nail that sticks out will be hammered”. Of course, the Japanese are individuals just like any other person, and they have their inner feelings and emotions (honne). But the behaviour they display in public (tatemae) is a result of societal expectations and circumstances. The “recruit suit” is only one example of this conformity. Is it a wonder that Japan ranks among the last on the OECD “freedom of choice” index?
Every year there are people and organizations who call for making reforms in this job-hunting process. Companies are called upon to recruit all year around, not just once a year. One university is urging its students to drop the “recruit suit”. But changes comes slowly to Japan, so I’m pretty sure we’ll continue to experience the blossoming of the black suits for many years to come.