A Bittersweet Graduation

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2003

The Class of 2003 finds little hope at home

by Bruce Rutledge

For Nobuko Obana, graduation was a chance to wear a kimono and say goodbye to close friends. It was an exciting time as well. She was receiving a Master's of Arts degree from Tsukuba University, one of the country's more prestigious public universities. Yet since the festivities ended in late March, she and many of her friends are finding they have nothing to do.

"Honestly, it is way hard for us to get career opportunities in Japan," Obana writes in an email. "Nowadays, having an MA does not mean much. All the companies want to reduce costs, so they do not want to take students like me with higher degrees. I have never heard of any of my friends or any of our sempai receiving higher salaries than four-year university graduates."

Obana and her friends face a Japan with record unemployment. January's unemployment rate of 5.5 percent tied the all-time high, but unemployment among the 20-something crowd is several points higher. More than 3.5 million people are unemployed, the government says, yet that number masks another reality: Many of today's "employed" are working part-time jobs and bringing home less money and fewer benefits. The non-agricultural sector had 510,000 fewer full-time jobs in January than it did a year earlier. Full-time jobs in the sector have been decreasing for 18 straight months. Meanwhile, the sector had 250,000 more part-time jobs in January -- a pattern that has continued for 13 straight months.

"Getting a job is a huge problem for graduates, unfortunately," says Noriko Suzuki, another recent Tsukuba grad who has decided to continue with her studies and get a doctorate degree rather than face the bleak job market. "Particularly for women, the reality is harsh and difficult. Companies do not need smart, intelligent women because companies want them to do office work -- I mean, just copying, filing, receiving customers, et cetera. It's changing, though."

But it's not changing fast enough for the Class of 2003. Many students say they will look abroad for job opportunities, including Obana and Suzuki. "I would love to work overseas," says Obana, who mentions that her good friend also has the same desire. "People say that the Japanese work scene or society itself is changing in terms of the gender gap, but there are lots of aspects in this society that are still so bureaucratic or male-dominated. I am not saying that all of these problems can be solved overseas, but I still believe that there are more opportunities."

As these Tsukuba graduates finished their university careers and began their new lives, war was breaking out in Iraq. Would the war keep Japan's best and brightest unemployed graduates at home longer? "Personally, I'm against this war and I would feel much more frightened than usual traveling to the US," Obana admits. "However, I do not think I would stop going there, because I know so much about the exciting spheres of American society. And I would love to be living in those circumstances."

Suzuki agrees. "Some of my friends seem to have hopes of getting a job overseas," she says. "The outbreak of war would not change my mind about leaving Japan if I was planning to do so. I would consider my safety for sure, but I would go anyway."

Japan experiences a net outflow of about 130,000 people a year, according to the Pacific Council, a California-based nonprofit organization. Women account for 70 percent of that emigration, and who could blame them? According to a report released by the Pacific Council late last year, "(Japanese) women take home paychecks only about two-thirds the size of those received by men in comparable jobs."

For the Class of 2003, the urge to move overseas is as strong as ever, regardless of the risks. @

Note: The function "email this page" is currently not supported for this page.