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Career counseling in Japan: Today and in the future.

The number of young people who postpone their career decision is increasing in Japan, as is the high unemployment rate. In companies, on the other hand, the traditional seniority system and lifetime employment, which once provided job security for corporate employees, began to collapse. Employees' work ethics and corporate attitudes toward workers have also changed. Under such circumstances, career counseling is the focus of public attention. In this article written in 1999, the author examines some problems in Japan's career counseling, compared with career counseling in the U.S., and discusses which course Japan's career counseling should take to cope with dramatic social changes.


One of the most noteworthy phenomena in the recent Japanese labor market is a rapid increase in unemployment. The unemployment rate rose to 3.4% in 1997,4.1% in 1998, and that of the male population hit a postwar record high of 5%. However, this is not only because of current economic recession; changes in employees' work value and companies' attitudes toward human resources also have a profound influence.

Career Counseling in Schools

Th number of voluntary young unemployed (those who leave the company of their own free will) has been constantly increasing since the early 1990s. Some of the reasons can be found in the current job placement system in schools as well as the career counseling system in companies. First, let's look at the job placement system in schools.

When the Management and Coordination Agency (1998) asked school graduates why they chose their job, 29.8% of them said, "because the placement officer recommended [it]," which ranked the highest among all the reasons. This indicates that job placement officers' advice has a strong influence over students' job choice in Japan.

According to the research conducted by Research Institute of Employment and Vocation (1989), 59.6% of high school graduates in Japan chose the job that teachers recommended to them, compared with 46.6% in the U.S. and 36.2% in the U.K. In addition, companies' recruiting activities are also affected because job offers from companies are screened by each high school beforehand.

Career Counseling in High Schools

Then, how does career counseling work in high schools in Japan? The Academy of Vocational Guidance in Schools (2000) labeled vocational guidance in Japanese high schools as the "department store-type" (pp. 22-25) because teachers deal with students' academic, vocational, and school-life problems through classroom management. This is different from the "professional-type" seen in the U.S. and Canada, where well-trained and qualified counselors cope with each student's needs. In Japan, there are no professional career counselors in high schools.

Both types have their own advantages, and Japan could make the best use of "department store-type guidance." In reality, however, having scarce knowledge of career counseling, teachers just dictate to students what they should do, and students have no choice but to obey their teachers. For this reason, teachers need to have sufficient counseling competencies, or professional counselors should be provided. In any case, the government needs to take the initiative and come up with effective measures.

Job Placement in Universities

For the past 5 years, the opening-to-application ratio in Japan has been less than 1.0. Although the tight labor market continues, the number of young people who resign within 3 years of initial employment keeps rising. Job placement officers in schools are struggling to tackle this problem.

Now let's look at the traditional course guidance conducted in universities in Japan. Employment guidance begins in summer or autumn of the 3rd year of their enrollment. In a lecture, placement officers give students a general picture of the world of work, the current employment situation, and how to plan their job-hunting activities. The second employment guidance takes place from summer to the end of the year. Then students submit registration cards to the job placement department, listen to the job-hunting experiences from senior graduates, and take aptitude tests and self-recognition tests. From January through April of the following year, they attend seminars to study industry and business, learn to write an impressive resume, and simulate job interviews. Finally, students get unofficial assurance of employment from spring to summer of their final school year (in Japan, the school year begins in April), well in advance of graduation.

Career Education

As previously discussed, there is no clear definition for "career education" in Japan. In the U.S., in his speech at the National Assembly of the Junior High School Principals in 1971, Sidney P. Marland Jr., the former U.S. federal secretary of education, emphasized the importance of career education in schools. He maintained that it was imperative to establish a stronger education system by consolidating the academic course and the vocational course. This prompted the Federal Education Agency to design a new career education model. In Japan, on the other hand, there is a tendency to draw a line between the academic course and the vocational course. This may be one of the factors that delays the introduction of career counseling into the university education system.

Objective Tests

An observation of how objective tests are applied in job placement in schools gives another insight into career education in Japanese universities. Formal assessment tools that are used in universities and government job placement offices are the following: Yatabe-Guilford Personality Inventory, Vocational Preference Inventory, Career Planning Survey Japanese Version, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and General Aptitude Test Battery by Japan's Labor Ministry. They are not complete translations of the U.S. version but are standardized in Japan, with data collected from Japanese samples. However, both "Yatabe-Guilford" and "Labor Ministry's GAT" are developed in Japan.

These tools are classified into two types: aptitude tests and work value/ work interest tests. Aptitude tests measure the individual's character as well as mathematical and linguistic abilities. Although the tests often provide valuable data for self-analysis, they have another important purpose: to give students a mock-test because companies often administer similar kinds of aptitude tests to job applicants. Therefore, the advantage of incorporating aptitude tests in job placement guidance is that students can see what evaluation they are likely to receive from companies. Work value/work interest tests, on the other hand, provide information that helps students choose occupations suitable for them. In the past, the aptitude tests were popular, but now universities make more use of work value/work interest tests. Work value/work interest tests enable students to evaluate themselves, whereas aptitude tests only tell them how they are likely to be assessed by others. Today, work value/work interest tests are ad ministered to freshmen and sophomores, who need to find out what they should do to lead a meaningful university life. There seems to be an increasing awareness that school life and employment issues are no longer separate issues and that the transition from school to work should be regarded as an integral part of school life.

Career Counseling to Students

Today there are increasing numbers of placement officers in Japanese universities who support such changes of view. However, changes have not occurred yet on the part of the schools. Mainly, it is because of the traditional mind-set held by teaching faculty that the university is not a place that caters to job-hunting needs. There is a wide gap of perception between academic circles and business circles.

The personnel system for job placement officers also affects the career counseling in universities. In the U.S., the staff at school career centers usually conducts career consultation. They are all qualified career counselors and conduct counseling relevant to their own specialty, such as marketing and accounting. In Japan, on the other hand, most of the officers are not the experts of specific industries. They are not counseling experts, either. This is because the position of job placement officer is nothing more than one of the transitory positions they experience in their service to the organization. They are transferred to another position in 2 to 5 years. Few job placement officers experience counseling more than 10 years.

Negative Effect of "Guidance Through Allocation"

In Japan, there is an expression "Guidance Through Allocation," which means to place one student in one job opening based on his or her academic record rather than his or her occupational interest and work value. On the other hand, most students choose their occupation based on salary, prestige of the company, or transportation convenience. Only after they start working do they realize that they should have given more consideration to their work value and interest. Thus, the mind-set on the part of students results in the increasing voluntary resignation by young workers.

Career Counseling in Corporations

Before moving on to the topic of counseling needs in Japanese corporations, it is necessary to compare traditional and new personnel and the employment management system in Japan. To this end, we first examine the case study in Matsushita Electric Industrial, Co., Ltd. (Senmatsu, 1999).

There are three pillars in the Matsushita Electric Industrial, Co., Ltd.'s, new personnel management system: (a) involvement of all employees in company management, (b) employee evaluation based on the merit system, and (c) internal human resource development and staff education. The new objective of its human resource management is that "employees and the company make [a] combined effort in contributing to the public interest, breaking loose from the traditional relationship under which employees subordinate to the company" (Senmatsu, 1999, p. 20). The new policies are based on the "job performance evaluation system" and the "employment system catering to a diversified employees' needs" (Senmatsu, 1999, p.21). The following are the details of the new system.

1. Expanded Specialist Course

The company's traditional specialist course covered the limited number of occupations. Under the new system, however, it will be expanded to include more occupations.

2. "College for Self-Transformation"

This is an in-house reeducation system to facilitate the shift of its workforce to new projects.

3. Performance-Based Bonus System

This system is applied to managerial positions. Their bonus is calculated based on their job performance.

4. New Evaluation System, "Communication Program"

This system emphasizes employees' motivation and pushes forward with a merit system. Supervisors conduct one-to-one interviews with their subordinates and give feedback.

5. Annual Salary System

The company makes distinctions in monthly salary among managerial positions based on their performance. Along with a performance-based bonus system, this monthly salary system plays a key role in establishing the annual salary system.

6. Global Career Development System

The company introduces a new training program to develop human resources that can contribute to the company's global business activities.

7. Monthly Installment Retirement Allowance System

This system deserves attention in relation to younger employees. However, for a better understanding of this system's benefit, it is necessary to examine the traditional retirement allowance system. Under the traditional system, the employee receives 40 to 50 million yen (approximately $323,154 to $403,942 in U.S. currency as of January 2002) as a retirement allowance if he or she continues to work for the company until the mandatory retirement age (usually 60 to 65). This can be called a "lump sum retirement allowance payment." However, if the employee leaves the company before the mandatory retirement age because of his or her own personal reasons, the amount of the allowance will be reduced. This is closely connected to the seniority system. Thus, the longer he or she works for the company the more allowance he or she will receive.

Under Matsushita's new system, on the other hand, every new employee has two options: to receive his or her retirement allowance in monthly installments starting from the initial payday or to receive the whole sum when he or she leaves the company. According to the official statement, Matsushita decided to introduce this system "as one of the diversification policies ... to make a breakthrough in traditional employment practices under which all employees serve one company throughout their lives" (Senmatsu, 1999, pp. 21-22) and set three goals:

1. To cope with diversified needs for employment conditions

2. To employ people who are more independent, unique, and have special skills

3. To review the traditional system based on the lifetime employment, responding to the mobility in the labor market caused by the structural changes in industry

Particularly noteworthy here is that Matsushita responded to the mobility in Japan's labor market. This means that the big business decided to break loose from the traditional lifetime employment system.

As a result, 44% of employees who joined Matsushita in spring 1997 chose to receive their retirement allowance in monthly installments. In 1998, 45% chose to do so. The lump sum system is better if they are to work for the company up until their mandatory retirement. In addition, choosing the monthly installments could be interpreted as an announcement that they have an intention to leave the company before they reach mandatory retirement age. Related to this, the author heard an interesting story from a member of the Matsushita personnel department. In 1997, when the company launched the new system, existing employees referred to new employees who chose the monthly installment plan as "a bunch of traitors." A year later, however, their evaluation of those new employees changed. They said, "These new employees might be the last to leave our company as long as they are provided with challenging and rewarding job." Therefore, it is important for the company to create an appealing work environment in which empl oyees are able to envision their own career path. In other words, employees begin to value the content of work, and companies put an emphasis on employees' competencies.

Career guidance in schools is affected by the changes in companies' hiring and management systems. Those changes that are taking place in industries will accelerate changes in career guidance. The focus of career guidance in schools will shift from "which company they choose" to "how students should develop their own career." It is not guidance from a short-term perspective. It is connected to school education.

Future of Career counseling in Japan

Government Policies

A significant difference between the Japanese government and the U.S. government regarding labor market policies is whether "career counseling" is regarded as an option. The U.S., in response to the launching of Sputnik by the USSR in 1957, established the National Defense Education Act and developed a summer career counseling training course for teachers, aiming to provide a counselor for every 300 high school students. Recently, the Clinton administration conducted profiling of unemployment benefit recipients and established one-stop career centers, where information and support for outplacement are available. In Japan, on the other hand, the government started putting more effort in job creation by strategically developing new business areas. Above all, it is putting more emphasis on the nursing care industry, which is said to create new jobs for 7 million people. At the same time, it is implementing policy measures to facilitate the shift of Japan's workforce into the telecommunication industry. Thus, the government is pushing forward with job creation package plans. However, those plans do not include career counseling or career counselor training.

The U.S. has a long history of using standardized occupational information, such as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) and the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) published by the U.S. Department of Labor, and career counseling has thrived on such information resources. Japan also has its own occupational classifications, but there are no information resources to match the individual with a relevant occupational trait. To address the supply--demand issue in the labor market, it is necessary to raise public awareness of the need for career counseling and provide an infrastructure that facilitates the development of career counseling.

Career Counselors

In the U.S., there are certifications for counseling and career counseling: Career Development Facilitator, National Career Counselor, and National Certified Career Counselor. Each sets up its own standards and certifies the quality of counselors. In Japan, there are professionals called "career counselors," but they are not mature enough to respond to the mobile labor force today. Just as the definition of career counseling is still vague, so are the required competencies of career counselors.

Although some graduate schools in Japan are providing educational programs on career counseling, there are no courses designed for job placement officers in high schools/universities or human resource department staff in companies. This situation is strange because these people are the ones who actually provide course guidance, vocational guidance, or career counseling to students and adults. In this respect, it is urgent to develop programs to enhance their competencies. To this end, the Japanese organization to which the author belongs is now developing a training course with the help of the National Career Development Association. The curriculum of this program conforms to that in the U.S. The program will be launched in early 2000. (Author note. This article was written in 1999; therefore, some of the information may not be current.)


As previously mentioned, most of the career counseling theories and techniques in Japan have been introduced from the U.S. However, because of the cultural differences between the two countries, it is difficult to adopt some of those theories and techniques as they were originally. Therefore, Japan needs to make minor changes to them or develop theories and techniques to meet its own needs. However, on the other hand, it is true that we have not fully discussed the nature of the cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan.

The political and economic relationships between the U.S. and Japan have never been so close, but there still exists a wide gap in attitude toward career counseling. In Japan, career counseling theories and techniques have taken hold in academic circles, but they have not spread among job placement officers in school and counselors working in companies, although they need to be equipped with counseling competencies.

As our society matures, the function of career counseling will change. It is important to identify what society expects of career counseling. The theories and techniques should be applied based on this expectation. Now is the time to reflect on our mind-set toward career counseling. At the same time, we need to use career counseling as a tool to change the course of this worsening employment situation. In this respect, Japan needs to learn more about practical theories and techniques from the U.S.


Academy of Vocational Guidance in Schools. (2000, March). Comparative study on career counseling in the United States, Canada, and Japan. Career Counseling, 22-25.

Management and Coordination Agency (Ed.). (1998). The youth of Japan-The Sixth International Comparative Study, 35-39.

Research Institute of Employment and Vocation (currently, Japan Labor Study Organization). (1989). The international study on job placement: A bridge between school and job. Research Institute of Employment and Vocation Report, 24.

Senmatsu, T. (1999). New HRM System in Matsushita Electronics Co., Ltd. JMA Management Review. Japan Management Association, July 1999.

Ryoji Tatsuno is the executive director of the Japan Career Development Association in Tokyo, Japan. Correspondence regarding this article should be sent to Ryoji Tatsunok Japan Career Development Association, 18-7 Uenokoen, Taito-ku, Tokyo 11O-0007, Japan (e-mail:
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Article Details
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Author:Tatsuno, Ryoji
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
Previous Article:Special section: Challenges for Career Counseling in Asia.
Next Article:The past, present, and future of career counseling in Taiwan.

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