Will Japan’s points-based immigration system shake up HRM practices?

Will Japan’s points-based immigration system shake up HRM practices?

On May 7, the Abe government introduced a series of revisions to Japan’s immigration system for highly-skilled foreign workers working in advanced research, technical and business management activities, replacing previous legislation issued in 2012. These revisions retain the original system’s points-based grading metrics which take into account professional qualifications, education, and annual salary. However, the new rules differ from previous legislation by hastening the allocation of permanent residency status by up to four years.

Applicants who receive 70 points through this grading system could be awarded permanent residency after three years in Japan, while those who receive 80 points or more could be eligible for permanent residency in as little as twelve months.

A high number of foreigners in the Japanese workforce is by no means a recent phenomenon. Yet the question remains as to whether improved access to permanent residency for highly-skilled foreigners will trigger a medium-term shift in human resource management (HRM) practices among Japanese firms. The answer, in short? Most likely not.

Domestic legislation as an obstacle to HRM reform

The 1986 Equal Opportunity Employment Law led to unfair HRM practices in contemporary Japan: unfortunately the long-term impact cannot be easily reversed. Although this law showed signs of promise, it ultimately proved to be lacking in clout, due to its vague insistence that firms “make efforts” to prevent unequal gender-based treatment across the recruitment, hiring, assignment and promotion processes. Firms would bypass this legislation by hiring men and women for disparate roles; men were assigned more central duties whereas women were mostly limited to assistant positions.

While the negative effects of this legislation have been subjected to piecemeal remediation attempts through replacement laws and Prime Minister Abe’s “Womenomics” initiative; growth in the number of women in the workplace has been more the result of a shrinking population and less about sound policy decisions. It should also be noted that a surge in numbers does not equate to a surge in job satisfaction. A nationwide preference for homogeneity has manifested in the form of an unwillingness among firms to differentiate themselves through HRM reform. This has strengthened the longevity of notoriously long working hours, adding to pressures on the country’s limited day-care services. For women in Japan, the choice between parenthood or professional development therefore continues to be framed as mutually exclusive.

Overall, the fact that the 1986 Equal Opportunity Employment Law has generated a whole new series of insidious and varied discriminatory HRM practices suggests that reform is unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future, even with the introduction of more highly-skilled migrants into Japan’s workforce.

Inseparability of Japanese culture and HRM practices

The Japanese workforce is underpinned by several unique HRM practices, which are tied to the preservation of key cultural values.  For example, respect for one’s superiors is evident in Nenko Jōretsu – a system which has been in place since the 1950s. Nenko Jōretsu recommends that firms allocate wages and promotions based on seniority and time spent with the company in an attempt to minimise employee attrition and maximise firm loyalty.  During the Japanese economic downturn of the 1990s, this system displayed signs of erosion and faced increasing criticism on the grounds that it stymied knowledge sharing and the development of inclusive organisational cultures. However, it has remained popular due to the widespread belief that it has catalysed the emergence of a quintessentially Japanese HRM style.

The ubiquity of practices like Nenko Jōretsu suggests that maintaining Japanese culture is understood as being dependent on the continuation of Japanese-style HRM practices. As the number of highly-skilled foreign workers in search of long-term employment opportunities is set to increase, so too will the bargaining power of prospective employers. Japanese firms will be afforded greater selectivity in recruiting foreign candidates who demonstrate an acute awareness of Japanese cultural values and high levels of adaptability. This development is therefore less likely to dilute Japanese-style HRM practices across Japanese workplaces as much as it will intensify them.

Ineffectiveness of performance-based appraisals in Japan

Despite the stagnation of Japanese HRM reform, there have been a handful of large industrial Japanese companies which have adopted Western characteristics without compromising the overall ‘Japanese essence’ of their HRM practices. A central component of this more balanced approach has involved more holistic performance appraisal mechanisms under the Seika-Shugi system, which anchors an individual’s performance to specific business results.

Although this move has been lauded by HRM reform proponents as accelerating growth among Japanese businesses, two main criticisms of the implementation of this system have emerged. Firstly, performance-based appraisal measures are sometimes interpreted as disrupting the organisational cohesion on which Japanese firms have previously based their success and have thus been blamed for worsening internal conflict and competitiveness. Secondly, there has been a growing trend among evaluators to either abstain from providing extremely positive or negative feedback, or to simply issue positive feedback in order to avoid ‘losing face’.

As a result, this apprehension towards performance-based appraisals and Western HRM practices in general is likely to pervade strategic decision-making under the pretence that they are fundamentally incompatible with Japanese businesses. Highly-skilled migrants will therefore continue to face pressure to adapt to these conditions.

Expected growth in the number of highly skilled foreign workers in Japan will almost certainly prompt Japanese businesses to reconsider their HRM strategy and determine the feasibility of reconciling traditional and contemporary practices. However, the fact that this is a high-risk manoeuvre and one which could incur significant remediation costs will deter Japanese businesses from seizing this opportunity. Highly-skilled migrants seeking employment in Japan are consequently faced with the responsibility of proving themselves to be adaptive and culturally aware when applying for permanent residency through this system.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Economics

About Author

Bethany Schoer

Bethany holds a BA (Politics and International Relations/ French), a Diploma of Languages (Japanese), and a Master of International Business from the University of Melbourne. With research interests including Japanese foreign and economic policy, Asia-focused market entry strategy and Russia-APAC relations, she has published works with JapanToday, the Australian National University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.