If he were an American steelworker, Tatsuo Fujisaka would find his life traumatic these days.
Kawasaki Steel, for which he has worked 27 years, is short of orders and running far below capacity. It has more workers than it can use and needs to trim its payroll until business picks up.
In Youngstown or Pittsburgh, U.S. steel-makers solve that problem by laying off employees by the thousands.
Fortunately for Fujisaka, things work differently in Japan. He has been "loaned" for six months to the Isuzu Motors, Ltd., and is busily turning out cars at the company's plant here south of Tokyo.
Fujisaka suffers no loss of pay; Kawasaki guarantees him the same wage he earned with them. Next spring, he'll return to Kawasaki Steel with senority intact and enjoy that company's annual pay raise.
He and 31 other Kawasaki workers transplanted to Isuzu have only one worry, he says. They fear they may make a mistake or cause a careless accident in the auto factory that would reflect badly on their training at Kawasaki Steel. It would be a terrible thing, he says, to bring "dishonor" on Kawasaki.
Fujisaka is a case history in Japan's unusual industrial system, which guarantees employees lifetime jobs, through thick and thin, and earns their unwavering loyalty in return. Firings are rare and massive lay-offs unthinkable. When Fujisaka joined Kawasaki Steel 27 years ago, both he and the company expected he'd be there for life.
During most of Japan's post-war history, the economy has been strong and assembly lines busy. Keeping the permanent-employment bargain was no problem while the good times rolled.
But Japan is now mired in a four-year-old recession and major industries are in trouble. The steel industry is running at only 70 per cent of capacity. But most of the bargains have been kept so far.
How well the pledges have been met is illustrated by Japan's low unemployment rate, which has remained phenomenally steady through the years. It is now 1.9 per cent, just what it was in 1957. In the last 20 years, there has never been a variation of more than 1 per cent in the monthly unemployment rate. Even today, it is far below that in the United States.
"In the United States, 4 per cent unemployment is considered acceptable," observed one Western economist. "In Japan they worry if it hits 2 per cent."
The government helps out by subsidizing salaries in companies forced to suspend business because of a recession. Since 1975, the Labor Ministry has been authorized to subsidize half the salary of an employee in a large enterprise and two-thirds of the wage paid someone in a small and medium-sized company. Nearly 70,000 companies spanning 25 industries are keeping workers on their payrolls with the help of subsidies now.
Close observers of the Japanese Labor scene have spotted various subterfuges by which unwanted employees are dislodged without being fired. Some are induced to retire early with sweetened pensions.
Others may suffer a loss of status arranged with characteristic Japanese indirectness by their boss. Robert E. Cole of the University of Michigan, in a book on Japanese blue-collar workers, noted that a worker who is incompetent may be assigned a low-prestige job near his colleagues in the hope he will quit of embarrassment.
Cole tells of a Japanese professor who rid his office of an unwanted secretary by feigning outrage at her minor mistake one day when she was absent. Next day her co-workers told the secretary of the professor's outburst and she quietly resigned rather than face him again. "Though this may strike the Westerner as a terribly inefficient and circuitous way of getting things done, it probably comes as second nature to the professor," Cole writes.
When recession strikes, however, major companies make deliberate efforts to avoid dismissals usually by finding the surplus employees jobs in healthy companies.
Since last October, Kawasaki Steel has ssnt 31 workers to the Isuzu auto plant here. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries transferred 600 employees to other companies within the Mitsubishi group. Some companies don't like to talk about such transfers because they constitute a loss of face in business circles. One executive acknowledged that 40 workers had been transferred to an auto plant but asked that his company name not be printed because it was not an "honorable" practice.
Isuzu, with its passenger car and pickup truck orders booming, is a natural place to farm out excess labor. It has accepted a total of 520 workers from 11 other companies - five of them part of the Nippon Steel group of enterprises.
Elaborate arrangements are made to assure the workers that they are only temporarily relocated and to preserve their basic company loyalties intact.
When Kawasaki Steel first arranged for its worker to go to the Isuzu plant, it was assumed their pay checks would come from Isuzu, the steelworkers union complained that this would hurt the feelings of workers who would sense they had lost their ties to Kawasaki. So it was arranged for Isuzu to pay the salaries to Kawasaki which would in turn hand the money over to the employees.
Toshiaki Saeki, personnel manager for Isuzu Motors, explained it was important that the Kawasaki men get their pay statements in envelopes bearing the Kawasaki seal instead of in Isuzu's envelopes.
"It would not be good for them to feel they have been laid off by the old company and then rehired" by another one, he said. It was necessary for their self-esteem that they be ordered came to work in Fujisawa so that their ly for Isuzu.
Isuzu also created the title of "intern" for the Kawasaki employees who came to work in Fujsawa so that their special status would be recognized. Special badges bearing the word "intern" are on their jackets.
The salaries paid at Isuzu are lower than at Kawasaki. To assure the men their status remained unchanged, despite the change in factories, Kawasaki pays the difference between their old and new wages.
To ease any lingering anxiety about leaving Kawasaki Steel, the men were also given a positive-thinking pep talk by their bosses. They should think of their time at Isuzu, they were told, as an opportunity to study car-making and develop new ideas for making steel that goes into autos. When they return to Kawasaki in the spring, they were informed, their ideas may help their company make better steel products when times are better.