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The End of Japanese-Style Human Resource Management?

Are Japanese companies ending their practices of lifetime employment and seniority-based pay, as the popular press has reported? Data from published Japanese surveys offer insights into three key issues:

Are Japanese employment practices changing? While changes are taking place, they are limited to seniority-based pay and promotion; lifetime employment remains intact in most large companies. The seniority system is gradually being replaced by a new job performance-based pay system that companies are using to raise white-collar productivity. Most companies plan to retain the lifetime employment system, the benefits of which outweigh the costs.

Why are employment practices changing? In the 1980s and 1990s, internal and external factors placed pressure on large firms to change the seniority system. Internal factors include falling profit margins, decreases in white-collar productivity, an aging workforce, and changes in employee attitudes toward work and the seniority system. External factors include the maturing of the Japanese economy, a decline in large Japanese companies' international competitive position, and increasing internationalization of Japanese companies' operations.

What are the implications of changes? Given the trends in Japanese employment practices, Western competitors should expect the following: a continuation of Japanese companies' market growth strategy with minor adjustments; innovative products and services as well as marketing and partnering strategies coming from Japanese companies; a resurgence in Japanese firms' competitiveness and productivity levels; increasing opportunities to enter into Japanese keiretsu networks as suppliers; and continued fierce competition in local Asian markets and lower prices from Japanese competitors in more mature product sectors as they move them increasingly to overseas production.

The examples of Honda, Fujitsu, and Sony, three firms that revitalized themselves through use of performance-based pay systems, product innovation, and new partnering strategies rather than through layoffs of core employees, suggest that while change will be gradual, most large companies will eventually follow in the same direction.

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