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Is Japanese white collar workers' loyalty really high? : Comparison Among Japan, France and the United States

Masayo Fujimoto
est professeure de sociologie à l’université Doshisha (Kyoto, Japon). Elle travaille sur différents sujets de recherches parmi lesquels les structures sociales de la mobilité professionnelle, l’analyse des institutions et l’étude des clusters au niveau régional et local. Auteure de plusieurs publications, ses travaux récents portent sur l’analyse des structures sociales, des institutions et de la mobilité sociale en comparant le marché du travail et la mobilité externe aux Etats-Unis, au Japon et depuis 2011, en France. 

In the mid-1980’s when the Japanese economy manifested significant growth, Western countries mocked Japanese businessmen who worked flat-out for their companies by calling them “worker bees.” Initially, the concept of employees working self-sacrificingly for an organization was peculiar to Japan. Also, it was understood that such was on the premise that a long-term trust relationship existed between the company and workers in an internal labor market. However, with the collapse of the bubble in 1991, a storm of corporate downsizing swept across Japan. The media reported on the “collapse of Japanese employment practices.” Since then, Japan has gradually rebuilt itself until the recent worldwide depression, where many were once again laid off due to corporate bankruptcy and restructuring. Although workers worked with the premise of lifetime employment, they experienced the dire reality that the organization cannot protect them. On the other hand, as always, large companies are hiring new graduates en masse, and many companies are continuing the lifetime employment and internal labor market-type employment systems. With the premise of lifetime employment, Japanese companies are still providing management philosophy education, knowledge necessary for business and technical training for new employees, and they promote not only skills but growth and development as a human.

1. Relationship between the professionals and the organization in Japan

Regarding the relationship between the employees and the organization, in particular the loyalty of employees, many studies have been conducted on the mechanism of their loyalty toward the organization and on the theme that the loyalty of Japanese employees is not necessarily great. In particular, from the significant contributing role of the manufacturing industry through the period of high economic growth and Japan’s emergence as an economic superpower, research interest in blue collar workers increased. Many countries were astounded by the high productivity of blue collar workers, who by nature, are often subject to alienation of labor. However, with overseas expansion of corporate globalization as well as the tendency toward higher education, Japan’s manufacturing industry has developed owing to the added value of scientific technology, having a high ratio of white collar workers and a significant increase in professionals. Nonetheless, there are still few studies in Japan regarding the relationship between professionals and the organization. It has been said that professionals have knowledge and skills which are not dependent on the organization; thus, their commitment to the organization is low. The work of professionals is versatile, in stark contrast to work alienation. To that end, the management has been diligent about providing motivation toward blue collar workers, but the motivation of the few professionals within the organization was left up to them.

In such a climate, according a 1997 corporate survey which the author was involved in, we could discover professionals with a high degree of loyalty to the organization. The background of the loyalty of such professionals is the Japanese structural factor in which even professionals are not inclined to make career changes. Of course, there are many professionals who are not committed to any organization. Company A, which we shall take up in this comparative study, is a leading company in Japan, as well as worldwide. Company A’s office workers, blue collar workers and researchers have higher degrees of loyalty than those of Company B in the same line of business. Moreover, even within Company A, the researchers have a higher degree of loyalty than office workers and blue collar workers. From previous studies, it has been known that the loyalty of professionals does not change significantly with the passing of time. In our studies of several organizations, while the length of employment and sense of loyalty show a positive correlation among non-professionals, we have verified that the loyalty of professionals is not greatly influenced by the length of employment. The researchers in Company A had a high degree of loyalty from time they first joined the company and the length of employment had minimal effect on that loyalty. In addition, the loyalty of researchers in Company A was higher not only in comparison to Company B, but also Institute C engaged in basic research. In this sense, the data for these researchers show a considerable degree of loyalty even among Japanese companies

2. Relationship between the professionals and the organization in a comparative approach: comparison between Japan, US and France

We have made comparative studies on how differences in social environment affect the attitude of professionals[2]. Japan is a low mobility society in which highly educated professionals rarely make career changes. The survey on Company A was conducted in 1997, after the collapse of the bubble economy in which the company continued to employ workers without laying them off. 
Silicon Valley, on the other hand, is a high mobility society where there are many people making job changes even within the United States. The survey on Silicon Valley professionals was conducted in the harsh post-Lehman Shock year of 2010[3]
In contrast, France is a medium mobility society where there are many longtime employees as well as job markets available for those switching jobs. The survey on French engineers was conducted in 2012[4]. We anticipated that, due to the effect of the Lehman Shock, the survey on Silicon Valley and France would reveal that many people would be committed to an organization for survival purposes, and that the sense of loyalty toward an organization which might lay them off, would diminish.

The excerpt from the results of the analysis is as follows: When comparing the commitment toward an organization among Japanese, Silicon Valley and French professionals, approximately 50% of the professionals in Silicon Valley and Japan feel insecure about being laid off, while only 25% of French professionals felt the same insecurity. The attitude of quitting a company if the work is unrewarding is relatively low, with approximately 9% in France, 16% in Silicon Valley and 21% in Japan, reflecting a professionals-like attitude. Expending oneself beyond the norm for a company was high with approximately 95% in Silicon Valley and 80% in France, while it was considerably lower in Japan at 40%. Loyalty toward an organization was the highest in France with approximately 72%, 50% in Silicon Valley, and lowest in Japan with 40%. Prescriptive resistance to resigning from an organization to which they belong was 10% for all three, reflecting their professionalism. In addition, approximately 44% in Japan, and 52% in Silicon Valley belong to an organization with calculations that they will not incur any losses, France was not so practical at 24%. However, while approximately 73% of the professionals in Japan and 67% in Silicon Valley felt a sense of purpose in the company’s operations, only 51% of the professionals in France felt that way.

3. Our observation

From the foregoing results, we can observe that in Silicon Valley and France, being a specialist does not necessarily mean that their loyalty toward the organization is low, and they do not spare any effort or loyalty to the organization while they belong to it. 
On the other hand, the degree of loyalty of Japanese professionals was higher in comparison to those of other domestic employees, but was relatively low in comparison to those of other countries. Professionals in post-Lehman Shock Silicon Valley and France had a high degree of loyalty to the organization, but did not have a dependent mindset.  This was a stark contrast to Japan where layoffs were not implemented. 

From the comparison of the three, we once again verified that the loyalty of employees of leading Japanese companies is a myth. In a high mobility society, while anticipating being laid off, people have a strong attachment to the organization while they are working there. In a low mobility society, people do not have such a high attachment to the organization while being in stable employment. Finally, in a medium mobility society, the attachment toward the organization is great, but empathy toward the business is low. 
The relationship between the professionals and the organization of Silicon Valley can be likened to a couple whose separation is imminent, but enjoy amicable relationship while together. The corresponding relationship in Japan can be likened to continuing in a loveless marriage. In France, it is as though there is love in the relationship but the future is not considered.

There is research indicating that the Japanese commitment to an organization is based on profitability. According to Masahiko Aoki’s argument, the behavior of Japanese employees is based on the premise that more benefits can be gained by being in a cooperative relationship with the company, and people fits to the currently shared anticipation (belief)  between players[5]. Toshio Yamagishi’s theory is that of frequency dependent behavior, that is, it is more beneficial to act in accordance with the majority of people[6]. On the other hand, we have observed many companies that are diligent in management philosophy education. In such surveys, we have observed the existence of the overlapping of the company business and one’s own job satisfaction, resulting in the employees’ passion toward their jobs.
Were their awareness and behaviors a result of frequency dependence based on profit-and-loss calculation? Were these the share of the management philosophy in the premise that a company will not betray? Once a employees feel the possibility that company betray them, is this easily collapse their philosophy share?  In 1997, Company A did not downsized yet, had excellent benefits and were diligent in management philosophy education. Nevertheless, loyalty of the professionals toward the organization was higher in other countries with higher risk factors.

The trust relationship between the company and employees must battle temporal inertia along with changes in the social environment. After the collapse of the bubble economy, Japan has been said to have gone through a “lost decade” or “lost two decades.” Once trust toward an organization has been lost, it may be hard to recover it, even if people are seemingly going through the same formalities. However, many time-honoured companies in Japan spanning hundreds of years, have overcome difficulties and remain to the present day. Japan is on the verge of a new generation when renewed trust relationship needs to be built between the company and the employees.

[1] Fujimoto M,2005, Senmonsyoku no Tensyoku Kozo:Sosikijunkyo-sei to Ido( The Mobility of Professionals: Reference Group and Mobility, Bunshin-do.
[2] Some parts of this study are supported by grants from the Casio Science Promotion Foundation and Inamori Foundation.
[3] Fujimoto M, 2011, "Japan-U.S, comparison of social factors of mobility by science and engineering researchers and technicians" science research grant 2008-2010 [Fundamental Research C] Research Achievement Report.
[4] The 23th survey of engineers throughout France in February 2012. We appreciate IESF(Ingénieurs et Scientifiques de France) which permitted us to involve .
[5] Aoki M 2001, Hikaku Seido Bunseki ni Mukete ( Towards A Comparative Institutional Analysis), NTT Syuppan.
[6]  Yamagishi T., 2010, Kokoro Dekkachi na Nippon-jin:Syudan-Syugi to iuGenso (The Japanese who does cause attribution too much at psychological factors: Illusion of groupism), Chikuma Shobo.