How Did Japan Achieve a 1% Unemployment Rate?: Facilitating the Education-to-Employment Transition

Makio Yamada

Japan was once a country that suffered from slow progress in its economic diversification away from agriculture. While the country modernized rapidly after 1868, the problem of a skills mismatch between education and industry remained throughout the first half of the 20th century. With a large number of educated but jobless citizens, youth unemployment continued to be a major economic problem. Nevertheless, a few decades later, the country developed a productive workforce harnessing its “youth bulge” demographics, and succeeded in building competitive export-oriented manufacturing industries.

During the 16 years between 1960 and 1975, in which the country’s GDP per capita grew almost tenfold, Japan achieved a consistent unemployment rate of 1%. This paper analyzes how Japan facilitated an education-to-employment transition of its young citizens, thus realizing the effective allocation of human resources to new industries. It identifies three elements of success in particular, which may offer useful insights to policy-makers in today’s emerging economies who are faced with the problem of unemployment.

First, Japan overcame the problem of a skills mismatch not by directly addressing the problem itself, but rather by building a system which brought about the matching of “expectations”. The government created institutional linkages between educational bodies and private firms through the Employment Stabilization Offices. These linkages provided young job-seekers with knowledge of the existing labor demand, and helped them in adjusting their career expectations in accordance with the situations in the labor market, while simultaneously enabling private firms, especially small and mediumsized enterprises (SMEs), to recruit from the workforce across the country.

Second, substantial teaching of job-oriented knowledge and skills was carried out by private firms, in the form of in-firm training programs for new and early-career employees. With some exceptions, the Japanese government’s early attempts to develop public industrial education did not succeed because of the absence of mechanisms to feed skills requirements in new industries into school curricula. On the other hand, the government’s support to private firms through training subsidies effectively alleviated the concerns of private firms, especially SMEs, which had been hesitant about investing in training due to their fear that they would be unable to recoup the training costs.

Third, while the education sector itself was not sufficiently capable of narrowing the skills mismatch itself, the school curricula nonetheless contributed to the “trainability” of young citizens. In particular, the emphasis on work ethic, through the Confucian idea of kō, or filial piety, imbued children with the virtue of diligence – a belief that working hard is good in itself. This type of education is considered to have created a pool of potentially productive workers, although the harnessing of that potential required economic institutions that offer incentive systems.

Finally, the paper discusses whether this Japanese experience is transferrable to the context of today’s emerging economies – in particular, Saudi Arabia. It concludes that the Japanese experience can, at least, provide them with useful insights and contribute to the building of the local capacity of “policy learning”. Some policies would appear to be easier to implement today owing to the progress in IT and AI, while other policies are likely to require tailored supportive measures to localize the practices.