Skill Acquisition in Japanese Enterprises

Mr. Hiromasa Suzuki
Emeritus Professor, Waseda University
Associated researcher at IDHE-ENS-Cachan, France Fellow Researcher


As we have seen in the previous articles, Japanese enterprises tend to recruit fresh high-school leavers and university graduates without any occupational experience. There is hardly any vocational training in the Japanese educational system, which is basically geared to general culture or at best theoretical knowledge. New graduates in law or chemistry major are hardly operational in business or in research, when they join their first job. One may wonder how these young new recruits acquire occupational skills and professional knowledge.


The key word for skill acquisition in Japanese enterprises is ‘on the job training’ (OJT) or learning by doing. This OJT is often misunderstood; it is not simply an elaborate induction course. In Japanese enterprises, OJT is a systematized and built-in career development plan of employees. For example, a fresh recruit from high-school in an automobile factory will begin his career as a trainee and will be assigned to a team of workers in the production process. A senior worker in the team will be nominated to ‘tutor’ him during the first year. Whenever the newcomer has problems with certain operations, it is up to the tutor to solve the problems with him. Normally, after one year, the new comer will be able to execute most of operations. After several years in the same team, he will be moved to another position, say, maintenance division. Again he will begin in the same tutor system with another tutor assigned among senior employees in that division. These regular transfers to other sections, called rotation system, are intended to enable workers to get versatile skills and a broad knowledge of the enterprise. This kind of OJT is applied not only to production workers but also to professional employees, though OJT is likely to be less formalized.


The combination of OJT and a career development plan is conceived on the assumption that employees will stay in the same enterprise for all their professional life. Pay should not be directly linked to the jobs to which workers are assigned; the regular transfer of employees to different divisions would involve a learning period before a worker becomes operational.


There are pros and cons to this internalized skill formation. For instance, the lack of a market for skilled workers in Japan prevents workers to move to other enterprises or to seek an opportunity of job hopping.  Furthermore, in times of rapid technological changes and competitive positions, one could wonder if this long-term skill acquisition is still viable. But large Japanese enterprises continue to attach much importance to the long-term skill development of their core employees without searching for short-term economic gains.

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