Should SEALDs student activists worry about not getting hired?

Summer 2015 — 70 years since Japan’s defeat in World War II. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling coalition have rammed two security bills through the Lower House that overturn decades of interpretation of the Constitution by enabling Japan to engage in collective self-defense. Now he hopes to do the same in the Upper House.

Opposition to the government’s aggressive push to loosen restrictions on the use of military force is being heard from many corners. The beacon for students opposing the bills has been the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy, or SEALDs. Under the slogan of protecting “freedom, peace and democracy,” these students have loudly voiced their opposition to the government’s push for militarization at protests around the country.

SEALDs have put paid to two tired tropes that have been regularly trotted out over the years about Japan’s students: first, that they have no interest in politics, and second, that student social movements here are a thing of the past. Inspired by SEALDs, even high schoolers and mothers who had never before engaged in social activism have taken to the streets to demand that our country commit to never again waging war, and that our youths are never asked to kill those of other countries. Jumping on the bandwagon have been the elderly, under the collective banner of OLDs, and even the middle-aged, or MIDDLEs.

This resolute, relentless movement has already begun to have a clear impact on our society. The recent drop in support for the Abe government is at least in part a result of grass-roots movements such as SEALDs. One Liberal Democratic Party member of the Lower House tweeted: “SEALDs members just don’t want to go off to war, i.e., their actions are based on extreme selfishness.”
But if these youths were only thinking of themselves, would they really be engaged in a collective social movement like SEALDs? Also, the idea that not wanting to go off to war is “selfish” is itself a serious attack on individual thought and freedom of conscience. It reminds me of the totalitarianism that prevailed before the war, and I was shocked to hear a modern-day politician utter such a comment. I assumed he must be some old fogey, so when I discovered it was 36-year-old Takaya Muto, I was flabbergasted.
The fact that a lawmaker would use such extremist language perhaps offers some insight into the extent of panic within the LDP at SEALDs’ growing strength. The comment caused quite a stir. That and some alleged financial shenanigans led to Muto’s resignation from the LDP on Aug. 19.

For politicians chomping at the bit to deploy Japan’s forces overseas, SEALDs are apparently quite an irritant. An independent member of the Yukuhashi city assembly in Fukuoka Prefecture also stuck his foot firmly in his mouth when he riffed on a comment by one SEALDs member that “we tremble at the thought of going to war.” Shinya Kotsubo parodied it on his blog on July 26, titling his article “SEALDs members should tremble at the thought that they’ll never get a job.” He explained further, writing, “You are demonstrating now while you’re students, so don’t come crying when no one will hire you later on.”

“When companies scout for students,” he elaborated, “they look at the name of the university. They don’t look at the students themselves. All the power lies in the side that selects. … Since the corporation is the one that selects, everything must follow the company’s rules and interests. This is reality.
“To give a specific example, say a sports club becomes involved in a rape scandal. The university’s reputation is damaged and it affects all students. The rapists’ reputations are of course damaged, but the university is also seen as ‘that kind of university.’ The fellow students who were unable to prevent such a scandal become tainted as people who would be likewise unable or unwilling to protect the reputation of the company. So there would be no reason to hire such a student.
“The university’s reputation was not built by the current student body. Since it was not acquired by current students, they have no right to protest. … This reputation was a gift given to current students from their seniors who have already graduated and gone out into the world, making a name for the university. If they damage the reputation of the university to which they belong, it’s obvious how things are going to play out. We should do everything possible to eliminate the risk of this. A corporation should not be asked to shoulder such a risk to its reputation.

“Careers begin with an offer from a corporation, but it’s already too late for that. The result is that they will all be shot down. Some students are at prestigious schools such as Waseda or Keio University. These students are probably OK since many famous politicians, police and bureaucrats are from there. Selection takes precedence in all cases, so the impact on these students will only be slight. However, students at universities with little power, history or tradition won’t be so lucky. They will not be selected and as a result, all will be eliminated. I have even heard of cases where the professors join the demos and egg on their students.”

To sum up, Kotsubo says:
1) Corporations have all the power over whether to hire;
2) when hiring, corporations place great weight on the reputation of an applicant’s university and don’t really look at the students themselves;
3) if the university’s brand name is hurt, all students attending that university lose credibility;
4) students engaged in social movements are damaging the brand value of their universities;
5) the risk for students at prestigious colleges like Waseda and Keio is slight, but students at less prestigious schools are a write-off (i.e., They will never get a job); and
6) I am saying all this for the benefit of students, but the most guilty are the professors who encourage students to protest without warning them of the risks.

Let’s examine Kotsubo’s rant from the perspective of labor law. I happen to agree with his first point: Employment contracts differ from other general commercial contracts in that management and labor do not have equal power; it is the worker who must make a living off wages, putting them in a weaker position vis a vis the employer. In effect, the worker has no choice but to accept the working conditions offered to them. Hugo Sinzheimer, the father of German labor law, called this the “subordination of the worker.” That is precisely why labor law was created: to redress the inherent inequality between employer and employee.

But labor law has its limits. “Labor law applies only to workers once they are hired and does not apply to employers at the stage of hiring,” declared the Supreme Court on Dec. 12, 1973, in the Mitsubishi Plastics case. The plaintiff had failed to declare his participation in a student movement at the interview stage, and his past activism was discovered during his probation period with the company. His hiring was terminated.

The top court ruled that the decision about whether or not to hire someone is entirely at the employer’s discretion, barring certain legal restrictions. The court said it was impossible to make it illegal for corporations to refuse to hire someone due to their particular beliefs or creed. The “legal restrictions” here refer to, for instance, refusing to hire someone due to their gender (Article 5 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act), the requirement to hire a certain percentage of workers with disabilities (Article 37 of the Act on the Promotion of the Employment of Disabled Persons of Japan); and the prohibition on telling a prospective employee not to join a labor union once they are hired (aka “yellow-dog contracts”) (Article 7 of the Trade Union Act).

So is it OK to refuse to hire someone due to their beliefs or creed? Article 3 of the Labor Standards Law prohibits discrimination based on creed, but the Supreme Court tells us that such a prohibition applies only after hiring, not before. Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of thought and conscience, but this does not directly restrict private companies, which are legally individual persons themselves, and the court rejected the plaintiff’s suit.

So, you might think it would be legal for firms to refuse to hire students who participated in SEALDs. It appears that labor law allows companies to discriminate, at least at the hiring stage, against prospective employees based on their beliefs or creed. But freedom of thought and creed is a cornerstone of democracy. In a country that prides itself on being democratic, individual thought and creed should be protected to the maximum extent possible. Yet, in practice, firms’ freedom to hire appears to trump freedom of thought.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare issued a directive in 1999 that classifies the following as private information about job candidates that companies are forbidden to collect: hometown, birthplace, family occupations/income, or any other item that could lead to social discrimination. Collecting information on an individual’s religion, philosophy of life, political party leanings, newspaper subscriptions, their history of involvement in student movements or labor unions, and any other information related to thought or creed, is also off-limits. These guidelines are supposed to discourage prospective employers from investigating a job candidate’s past in ways that discriminate or violate freedom of thought or creed. A directive is not a law, but any company that ignores this principle of equality when they hire needs to be called out for what it is: a “black company,” as firms with dubious ethics are known here.

For most of us, the value in proactively hiring women, foreigners and people with disabilities in order to enrich corporate diversity is a given. Kotsubo envisions corporations as a conformist collection of submissive workers who align their beliefs with authority, never utter a complaint and shun all individuality. Although he is 36 (the same age as Muto), Kotsubo’s beliefs are surprisingly closed-minded and old-fashioned. Are we witnessing the fogey-ization of our young politicians?

Muto says SEALDs members think only of themselves; Kotsubo says they think too little about their own futures. SEALDs can’t win.

Kotsubo claims companies look at the name of a student’s university, not the student themselves. Some Japanese firms may be like that, but not all. More companies these days are beginning to look instead at students’ individual qualities, regardless of their alma mater. And more are beginning to place greater importance on bold presentations during interviews, with some even choosing students from unknown schools over Ivy Leaguers.

What shocked me the most was that Kotsubo compared SEALDs activism to rape. More than the victim, he seems concerned about the rapists’ classmates, who must suffer damage to their university’s reputation. It’s incomprehensible to me why a rape scandal would damage students who had nothing to do with it.

Kotsubo seems to deny the independence of the individual. He loathes those individuals who question or challenge existing authorities such as the government or corporations — those who think with their brains and then take action. Kotsubo sees university students as nothing more than future corporate cogs. Cogs don’t need beliefs or a creed, so he declares that they are throwing away their careers. For a politician to try to instill such fear in students is beyond the pale.
In my experience, corporate hiring is akin to matchmaking. Both the prospective employee and employer are human beings. Even perfect interviews don’t guarantee employment. Getting hired is no evidence of personal success but rather of a good match. The whole process is more nebulous than the textbooks suggest. There is no need for us to suppress the beliefs or conscience of individual students during their precious college years.
Thinking about these politicians who hold the sword of Damocles of denial of employment over students’ heads in an attempt to muzzle them, I would love to send them a letter that simply reads, “We are sorry to inform you that we have decided not to hire you.”

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union. She can be reached at Labor Pains appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Originally published in The Japan Times