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by Xinle Su

At an interview for an internship about two weeks ago in the Marunouchi area, I was asked about my stint on the University’s skiing team. I replied that being in a bukatsu was a profoundly enriching experience in terms of understanding hierarchy on uniquely Japanese terms, but that I had quit recently in order to focus on other pursuits.

The interview had been going rather smoothly thus far. However, at this point in time, something in the interviewer’s tone changed as he repeated what I had said, while modifying the form of the word ‘quit’ to the –teshimau form, which clearly connoted more than just a tinge of regret on my behalf that I had quit.

I have also faced a host of mixed responses upon telling people around me that I had quit the skiing team. Some did not expect me, a foreign student relatively maladjusted to Japanese organizations, to last long anyway; some have rejoiced on my behalf, telling me that bukatsu was not the best environment anyway. But mostly, they seemed to assume that something had gone wrong.

Climbing up the corporate ladder in Japan - maybe not to the top, but somewhere decently high.

Climbing up the corporate ladder in Japan – maybe not to the top, but somewhere decently high.

Initially, I could not quite comprehend the stigma associated with quitting, but I do understand the merits accruing to the individual and the organization that come from a sustained 4-year-long membership in a single bukatsu. The clearly-defined hierarchy renders the first-years, being the most junior, responsible for the minor but still undeniably necessary tasks like taking attendance at practice. The second-years do such jobs when no first-years are around, but also assist the third-years, who act as the overall executive management team. Finally, the fourth-years are free of most duties towards the team besides being in their best condition to perform well in their final year of representing the University in competitions. Such an organizational structure makes for clearly delineated roles, with everyone being able to experience different roles as they rise while utilizing their accumulated experience. This structure seems to be a microcosm of the inherent structure in traditionally Japanese companies, where promotion based on seniority (as opposed to ability) as well as lifelong employment at the same company are key tenets which work in tandem. When one is expected to be employed for life at the same company, one can feel secure knowing that with advances in one’s working years, one rises up the ranks eventually. These two principles, along with company-specific labour unions, used to make up the ‘Three Sacred Treasures’ of employment in Japan.

In contrast, there are a few noteworthy global companies that embrace the idea of company alumni as their past employees move on to other companies and industries. One example is McKinsey, where networking events with alumni enable professional relationships between former consultants. McKinsey prides itself on equipping its employees with skills which put them in good stead in many other industries after leaving. Quitting is in fact viewed positively, as employees venture into other industries and become the movers and shakers of society in a different manner. In fact, it can be taken to be part of McKinsey’s social responsibility programme: not hoarding the talents but letting them go into the world after charting phenomenal self-growth there.

The dichotomy in attitudes towards dabbling in a variety of activities and investing one’s efforts in a single activity will persist. While the self-growth to be derived from an activity will undoubtedly be proportionate to one’s dedication to that certain activity, there is value in throwing in the towel sometimes, simply because it opens up other doors for one to explore a different side of oneself.

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