Downturn in Japanese Economy Constrains Employment Prospects for Students, Alumni

For a person wanting a business job involving Japan in the late '80s to early '90s, getting work with the Japanese seemed all so easy and lucrative.

The Feb. 2, 1987 cover of Newsweek--"Your Next Boss May Be Japanese"--blared the American perception of fear and opportunity that Japanese economic growth seemed to represent.

During the last half of the 1980s, Japanese companies based much of their expansion on the wildly inflated values of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

This "cheap cash" fueled Japanese efforts to fund costly research, new manufacturing facilities and such trophy purchases as Rockefeller Center, Columbia Pictures and automobile plants in the U.S. and England.

But as Japan's euphoric economy began to take a downturn around 1992, prospects for recent college graduates also got tougher. Today's graduates face considerably higher standards and requirements in finding jobs in Japan, aside from teaching English. Still, at Harvard, many current East Asian Studies concentrators maintain that job availability is still high--although students have to hustle for jobs more fervently than before.

Enduring Enrollment

Harvard students studying Japan today who are interested in Japan-related business jobs insist that Japan should not be written off--at least not yet.

Ken Takasu '98, a concentrator in East Asian Studies (EAS) and economics, worked for the U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs in Tokyo last summer. He says that Japan is actually a very exciting place to work right now.

"I think that anyone who is interested in finance would be interested in the developments going on in Japanese finance right now," Takasu says.

Takasu, who is considering returning to Goldman Sachs after graduation, insists that there are "tremendous" opportunities for Japanese and non-Japanese interested in Japanese finance.

Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto last fall set up a series of deregulatory reforms that by 2000 would make the Japanese capital markets competitive with other foreign investors, according to Takasu, who is studying the topic for his senior thesis.

Furthermore, Takasu says, the post-bubble economy has actually been beneficial to the financial sectors he has been involved in.

"What the 'bubble burst' really means is that over-inflated asset prices came down to less inflated levels, Takasu says. "In this type of environment those most affected are entities which have these assets on their books, most notably banks, trusts, insurance firms, securities firms, etc."

As for report of China's economic growth, Takasu insists that Japan still comes out on top.

"One must remember that regardless of what one hears in the news, Japan has the largest pool of liquid savings...there's a lot to be done in our lifetimes," Takasu says.

Nathan Scales '98, a computer science major, says that he first became interested in Japan when he went to the country as an exchange student in the summer of 1994. Since then, he has studied up to the fourth-year level of Japanese at Harvard and become engaged to a Japanese woman.

"I'll be working as a computer programmer in Japan next year," Scales says.

Scales says that he didn't have much difficulty finding the job.

"It seems that there are a lot of companies looking for programmers--or students with other technical backgrounds--who can speak both English and Japanese," Scales says.

Scales says that he is now thinking of accepting an offer from a Japanese company that is marketing a software package for doing automated production scheduling.

Luke Moland '97-'98, an EAS and economics concentrator currently seeking a job in strategy consulting, expresses a more measured but still optimistic view.

"You can't go into EAS for purely economic reasons, there's bound to be disappointment, because taking an Asian language is not like night courses in accounting," Moland says. "You have to be serious."

Moland began taking Japanese as a high school student in Seattle at the height of the Japanese bubble economy.

"I started taking Japanese because it was different from anything else I'd known. At worst, I thought I'd fulfill my language requirement for high school, at best, I might be filthy rich," he says, half-jokingly.

Nowadays, however, to get a consulting job in Japan, advance planning is necessary, Moland says.

"The ideal is to work two years in a domestic office, doing international cases...then, with cultural knowledge and language abilities, you become very marketable."

Moland summed up the situation for non-Japanese aspiring to work in business in Japan.

"There's still a lot of opportunity," Moland says. "But now you need to know the language, the business and people. You can't just be smart."

Toughening Requirements

The greater barriers to finding work in Japan have been reflected in the employment patterns of Harvard graduates seeking jobs.

Michael D. Merner '84 experienced the vanguard of the so-called "bubble economy."

"[During the bubble economy] companies were poaching each other's employees with increasingly high salaries, including foreigners," Merner says in a telephone interview from his Tokyo office. "People were hiring up to whole teams not based on resumes or interviews but just on rumors."

"It was like the gold rush, [businesses] trying to take advantage of the situation," he recalls.

"It also created opportunities for people wanting to work in Japan without prior [business] experience. As long as they had a decent degree from a recognized institution and spoke enough Japanese to get around," he adds.

Merner says that he became interested in Japan almost by chance. He first visited Japan in the summer of 1982, and took an intensive summer course in Japanese the following summer. But the giddy economic climate permitted him to find a job, even though his language skills were limited.

After graduating, Merner arrived in Tokyo and started calling major Japanese banks and American investment banks.

While Merner had no previous business experience, less than two months after placing his call, he was working as an analyst in Morgan Stanley's Tokyo office.

"I was hired straight out of college because Morgan Stanley was doubling the size of its Tokyo office, not because I was great, but because they needed bodies," he says.

After the Japanese "bubble" burst in the early '90s, Japan entered a recession from which it has not entirely emerged.

Merner said that he does not recommend the way he obtained his first financial-sector job to Harvard students of the '90s who are currently seeking business jobs in Japan.

"Now, you need two or three years in New York first," says Merner, who has since left Morgan Stanley, obtained an MBA and is now running his own business in Japan. "Otherwise, you must be Japanese."

A Slackening Job Market

At the Office of Career Services (OCS), Judy Murray, the director for on-campus recruiting, says the number of Japanese companies that have come to recruit Harvard students has diminished since the late 1980s.

"Matsushita comes [to Harvard] every year," Murray says, referring to the Osaka-based electronics conglomerate. But Murray was unable to think of any other Japanese company currently recruiting. She says that "many more" Japanese companies came to recruit during the mid to late '80s. Job growth has shifted to Hong Kong, she says.

The increased circumspection of Japanese companies in hiring is also mirrored in the drop in the number of Harvard students studying Japanese.

According to Wesley Jacobsen, professor of the practice of Japanese language and director of the Japanese Language Program at Harvard, the number of students studying Japanese has declined from a high of 340 in 1991 to 166 in 1996.

"The big news is the sudden decrease in Japanese language studies nationwide," Jacobsen says. "[After] the so-called bursting of the Japanese 'bubble' in roughly 1993, Japan ceased to be viewed as the economic powerhouse."

On the other hand, Jacobsen notes in that in the meantime the Chinese department at Harvard "has been overwhelmed."

Job Scramble Persists

At Japan Career Forum at the World Trade Center in Boston in October, however, there was no shortage of recruiters. More than 120 companies participated, including Mitsubishi Corp. of Tokyo, which is headed by a Harvard graduate, Minoru B. Makihara '54.

Taka Gondo, a representative from Hitachi Telecom, said that Japanese companies are still very focused on internationalizing their employees. He referred to Sakamoto Ryoma, a ronin (masterless samurai) hero who helped unify Japan and is idealized as a patriot.

"Right now, Japanese companies need to change, We need Sakamoto Ryomas to change, and we think that they're abroad studying here. So we're here to look for them."

Some companies did have specific qualifications that they were looking for in candidates.

"We're looking for people with financial services and technology background [for our Tokyo office]," says Neal Bruce, a representative from Ernst and Young Management Consulting.

Others, such as representatives from Toys 'R' Us, and McDonald's, had relatively few requirements.

"We're looking for people who are cheerful and customer-oriented," says Sato Osamu, human-resources director for Toys 'R' Us.

"We want aggressive, communicative team players," says Sato Tadahiro, a representative from McDonald's. "McDonald's was successful in Japan. But we also have to run it American-style. So we need people who've lived in the U.S., who've had international experience."

On the other hand, the companies sent a clear message. Every representative interviewed required some degree of fluency in Japanese--for most, native-level or business Japanese. In short, while Americans not of Japanese descent were considered, many companies prefer Japanese expatriates.

According to a chart from the organizers of the Career Forum, students who had majored in business, computer studies and engineering were most in demand.

It is that enduring demand for top college graduates that impels many students to continue to look to Japan for employment.

For example, Moland says Japan is definitely in his long-term plans.

"Things are happening [in Japan]," Moland said. "I think I'll stick around."

--Anne Y. Lee contributed to the reporting of this article.