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  • Writer's pictureCXOs & Co.

Japanese Musical Chairs corporate game

You have been training a junior Japanese engineer for some time, then he was moved to another division in HR, then you heard he was in accounting at a US sister company, then you lost sight of him and 15 years later he is your boss… This sounds like a common story for Europeans working for Japanese companies. Welcome to the Japanese Musical Chairs corporate game!

A management employee in a large Japanese company will typically move into new jobs in different fields repeatedly during his career, at intervals ranging from two to seven years (on average close to 4-5 years).

The system of job rotation in Japan is one of the distinctive features of Japanese management. It is a key reason, they say, why Japanese corporations are so often cohesive, smooth-working organizations. The benefits of frequent job rotation are said to include these:

- The development of broad-gauged generalists, in contrast to Westerners, who tend to be specialists in designated fields such as sales, legal affairs, engineering or accounting. In particular, the Japanese top executive is more likely to have experience in operations and manufacturing.

- A close working association with many workers in a variety of areas. This, it is said, enhances communication and mutual understanding of the company's problems.

- Identification with the values of the corporation generally, rather than the values of a given specialty or profession.

- A reduced risk of losing skilled personnel. An unsatisfied Japanese worker, knowing that his position will change before long, is less likely to leave the company.

In the below picture we try to describe the path of Japanese managers during their musical chair rotations.

Entering the company typically at 23 (post-graduation) Japanese white collars will “rotate” from department to department, to other divisions, overseas for some, to sister companies etc until approximately 55 years of age. Each Musical Chair round can be a promotion, or a lateral move, or a "sliding" move.

If they made it to the “General Manager” position the next rotation will be critical. Still in 2019 the official retirement age in Japan is 60. Meaning that if a manager doesn’t make it above General Manager, he is simply pushed out, retired… End of the Musical Chairs game.

Then if he becomes a director, the next step is, latest, at 65. And there the rotation is again black or white. It’s either retirement at 65, or the “Holy Grail” of board or company president. Some stay there until passed their 70's. These are the winners of the Musical Chairs corporate game. Wish good luck to your young Japanese engineer!

To some extent, frequent job rotation is both a reflection of Japanese culture and possible because of it. Historically, Japan has been a collectivist, group-oriented society. In feudal times, the group that gave one's life meaning and identity was the clan. Today, it is the corporation. Or should we say, “it is still the corporation”. The demographics in Japan (very fast ageing population) will put this system under pressure. As more foreigners are to be included in the Japanese companies the job rotation system may slowly become something of the past. What’s your view on it?


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