Corporate Governance in the 21st Century

Corporate Governance in the 21st Century

Japan’s Gradual Transformation

Corporations, Globalisation and the Law series

Edited by Luke Nottage, Leon Wolff and Kent Anderson

The ‘lost decade’ of economic stagnation in Japan during the 1990s has become a ‘found decade’ for regulatory and institutional reform. Nowhere is this more evident than in corporate law. In 2005, for example, a spate of reforms to the Commercial Code culminated in the new Company Act, a statute promising greater organisational flexibility and shareholder empowerment for Japanese corporations competing in a more globalised economy. But does this new law herald a more ‘Americanised’ system of corporate governance? Has Japan embraced shareholder primacy over its traditional loyalty to other key stakeholders such as ‘main banks’, core employees, and partners within diffuse corporate (keiretsu) groups? This book argues that a more complex ‘gradual transformation’ is unfolding in Japan – a process evident in many other post-industrial economies.

Chapter 3: The Death of Lifelong Employment in Japan?

Leon Wolff

Subjects: asian studies, asian business, asian law, business and management, asia business, international business, law - academic, asian law, corporate law and governance


Leon Wolff Lifelong employment in Japan is more trope than literal fact. As a synecdoche, it encapsulates Japan’s system of industrial relations. As a metonym, it epitomises the employee-oriented communitarian firm (Abe and Shimizutani, 2007, p. 347). As a metaphor, it represents Japan’s distinctive form of stakeholder capitalism (Dore, 1993). Yet none of these tropes holds as a truth. Lifelong employment does not signify the dominant form of employment in Japan. It does not privilege employees’ interests over business concerns. And it does not constitute a benign, kinder form of capitalism compared with the market-based model. If there is one trope that best describes the institution of lifelong employment in Japan, it is irony. As this chapter will show, lifelong employment is not an institution at all. If anything, it applies to less than 20 per cent of the working population, mostly male workers in large companies or public institutions – and, even then, only for a portion of their working lives (Hiwatari, 1999, p. 275; Marshall, 2005, pp. 103–4). Nor, to the extent that it does exist, is its exclusive concern with guaranteeing lifetime job security. Rather, both in practice and in law (Araki, 2000, 2005, 2007; Yamakawa, 2001), it enshrines ‘flexicurity’ (Wilthagen and Tros, 2004) – a combination of security of employment and flexibility of working practices. Nor is it innately ‘Japanese’. It is neither a cultural form of co-operative, communitarian capitalism (for example, Jacoby, 2005a, 2005b, 2005c) nor an a priori institutional pillar of an alternative economic design...

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