The Retirement Home for Japanese Salaried Workers: Their Workplace

Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata, does something few CEOs do: He conducts informal, in-depth interviews with key employees and shares the results on the company website. Titled “Iwata Asks” (Japanese / English), the interview series has been going on for several years, revealing surprisingly detailed anecdotes behind the game development scene from the usually secretive company.

The latest edition of Iwata Asks (in Japanese only, as of Apr 25th 2010) traces the history of the great-great-granddad of handheld game consoles, Game & Watch, which was created almost three decades ago. The lessons we can learn this time? How they transformed the mundane pocket calculator into a pioneering gaming console (yes, yes…), and—this entry’s topic—what happens to Japanese salaried workers after they pass their prime.

The interviewees, ex-Game & Watch designers, from left to right:

  • Masao Yamamoto, New Business Promotion Department
  • Makoto Kano, President’s Office
  • Takehiro Izushi, New Business Promotion Department

(The rightmost person is Satoru Iwata, the interviewer)

What’s curious to a non-Japanese are the following:

  • They are still working in Nintendo (the lifetime employment is still working, apparently).
  • Their current positions seem out of sync with their expertise.

The latter is the key issue here. How can a semi-retired ex-game designer promote new business? And what does a senior guy do among 20-something secretaries in the president’s office?

Well, as a Japanese who was once employed in a traditional Japanese company, I can attest: they are demoted workers spending their semi-retirement life doing easy jobs in positions or departments specifically created for them.

In a traditional Japanese company (with more than a hundred years of history, surely Nintendo belongs to that category), typically all freshmen start with equal conditions and climb up the promotional ladder one step at a time. The tipping point arrives when they reach their mid-30s. A handful of elite workers will be given important roles, and the rest will be transferred to non-critical positions, making room for the upcoming younger generations.

If this story ends here, we are not seeing anything Japanese (= peculiar). What separates Japanese companies and their overseas counterparts is that in Japan, a new position will be created for those non-elites if an existing one is not available. The company provides them non-critical jobs such as administrative tasks or organizing motivational seminars.

Thus, in the aforementioned Nintendo’s case, we are seeing new divisions with few substantial jobs (New Business Development) and harmless positions in existing divisions (President’s Office). When I was working in a Japanese company, I saw divisions called “Future Creations Department” and “Idea Generation Group” packed by middle-aged guys.

Have you ever wondered how the infamous lifetime employment system worked? This way.