In a private room at a posh Shinjuku crab restaurant, five twentysomethings surround Noboru Koyama, 60-year-old CEO of Tokyo cleaning company Musashino. Koyama looks at his watch it's 8:30 p.m. and announces that the party is moving: "O.K.," Koyama says briskly, "we'll do hotel bar, sushi, drag-queen show, hostess club, in that order." The young salarymen, who volunteered to spend Saturday night with their boss, gasp. "We're going to all?"
If you think Japan's hard-drinking business culture is as dead as the Sony Betamax, think again. After more than a decade of austerity (not to mention sobriety) during Japan's lengthy economic slump, many Japanese companies are thriving today and they're reviving some of the business customs that were hallmarks of Japan Inc. during the booming 1980s. Not only are company-sponsored drinking marathons back, so too are subsidized dorms for single employees as well as corporate outings such as hot-spring retreats and annual visits to the company founder's ancestral grave. "We realized that workplace communication was becoming nonexistent," explains human-resources manager Shinji Matsuyama, whose company, Alps Electric, spent several million dollars last year to bring together about 3,000 workers for its first company-wide undokai, or mini-Olympics, in 14 years. According to Matsuyama, the shared experience of playing dodge ball and skipping rope "helped unite people under a common goal."
It's that sense of team spirit and togetherness called soshikiryoku that many Japanese corporations are trying to rekindle. A generation ago, college grads entered companies en masse, lived together, drank together, quite often married each other, and retired together. This close-knit corporate culture, which was virtually national labor policy, was widely credited for Japan's meteoric economic rise. But it all ended when the country hit the skids in the 1990s. Threatened by cheap labor and more efficient business models, Japanese companies began adopting American management concepts such as merit-based pay and competition among employees. "The Japanese equated globalism with not just the American way of business, but with rejecting their past," says Jun Ishida, CEO of Tokyo-based business consultancy Will PM. "No more drinking sessions, no more company events. Suddenly it was about the individual out for himself and only himself."
But as the economy rebounded in the past several years, many executives began to wonder if they had gone too far. Introducing dog-eat-dog values into corporate cultures that continue to prize the organization over the individual generated worker dissatisfaction. Trying to rebuild company loyalty and decrease turnover, major companies including Canon, Kintetsu and Fujitsu have in recent years altered or scrapped their performance-based pay and reinstated seniority as a determinant of salaries. Meanwhile, trading house Mitsui last year reopened five dorms for single employees a program that costs the company nearly $1 million a year. "We're hoping that group residence will nurture communication and interpersonal skills in our new young hires," says Mitsui human-resources development manager Hitoshi Takiguchi. Employees have responded enthusiastically. Despite the cramped conditions and shared bathrooms, 24-year-old Miki Masegi moved from her parents' house in central Tokyo to live with 105 female co-workers. Though her commuting time doubled, she says the move was worth it. "It really helps to have people around that you can talk to about your problems," Masegi says.
Companies are trying to foster camaraderie and loyalty in other ways as well. Every new employee of Tokyo p.r. firm Bilcom, for example, must spend a weekend making a three-minute digital slide show sharing their most moving personal experiences. One worker revealed how 9/11 changed his career outlook; another talked about how she drew strength from a gay classmate who came out in college. Company president Shigeru Ota says the presentations are designed to "create a new type of family company [by] sharing life history ... delight, anger, sorrow and pleasure."
Despite such experiments, Japanese companies may find it hard to restore the glory days of Japan Inc. That's because today, one in three Japanese works part-time; younger employees in particular tend to value mobility over the security of lifetime employment. Indeed, during Noboru Koyama's Saturday-night drinking session, employee Eri Shimoda confides that his co-workers "feel like family." Yet most of those who attended the party also say that, warm and fuzzy sentiment aside, they plan to leave the cleaning company within a few years. "Work is just work," says one of them. No amount of free sake, it seems, can convince today's young salarymen that their loyalty can be purchased on the company tab.