Entering-the-Company Ceremony

On April 1, Japanese business grinds to a halt as companies pause to ritually welcome their new employees.

Published April 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It was the morning of April 1.

That date explained the sea of earnest, eager young faces in the audience,
the somber ranks of white-haired executives on the stage, the huge
blue-and-white felt banner on the wall reading "Nippon Denki K.K." (which is
to say, Nippon Electronic Corporation, an industrial giant known around the
world as NEC), and the overall aura of great expectations in the air as the
corporate band launched into the familiar opening chords and 1,400 young
people in dark blue business suits rose as one to gush forth a spirited and
surprisingly harmonic rendition of a peppy, upbeat song, a song that would
be, for the next three or four decades, their song:

"To build a culture of communication
Shall be our destin-eeee,
Nippon, Nippon, Nippon Den-keee!"

That song, the "Nippon Denki Corporate Anthem," has been changed only
slightly since 1889, when Alexander Graham Bell provided the
money to start a Japanese counterpart of his Western Electric Company.
Today, Western Electric is no more, and the Bell System is history, but NEC
ranks as one of the world's largest and richest makers of electric and
electronic equipment, a company with the wealth and stature of an IBM or a
Microsoft. To start work there -- or, rather, "to become a member of the
Nippon Denki family," as the company's president, Tadahiro Sekimoto, put it
in his speech that April 1 -- is an important and thrilling moment in the
life of any Japanese person. That's why I saw all those eager young faces
as I sat in the back of the ridiculously rococo Gold Ballroom at the
Tanagawa Prince Hotel in Tokyo on the morning of April 1.

At NEC and hundreds of other companies all over Japan, April 1 is the day
for the Nyu-Sha-Shiki, or Entering-the-Company Ceremony. About one
million new graduates -- kids who have finished high school or college about
a month before this big day -- start their working careers on April 1 every
year. For NEC and most other big companies, it is the only day all year
they will take in new employees. You can't just open the door on any old
day and take in workers. Hiring somebody -- inviting a person to share
membership in the corporate group -- is an important moment, not just for the
company and the new worker, but for the society as a whole. Such things
have to be done right, with ritual and ceremony that befit a defining
moment. Confucius says in the first book of the Analects that joint
observance of established rituals by all members of a group is crucial to
building the feeling of harmonious relations that is required for the group
to succeed. That applies whether it's the Nyu-Sha-Shiki at a Japanese
company or the company picnic or the whole family gathering for
Thanksgiving dinner in the United States. "Of all the things brought about
by ritual," it says in the Analects, "harmony is the most valuable."

There was no shortfall of ritual at NEC. A few weeks before the ceremony
started, each new employee had received a letter addressed "Dear New Member
of the Company." It had directed them to wear a dark gray or blue business
suit and to be in their seats -- assigned seats, of course -- thirty-five minutes
before the ceremony. Most of the new "members" took these admonitions
seriously, and just about all of the 1,400 new hires for NEC's Tokyo-area
plants and offices were on hand in the Gold Ballroom at 8:25 a.m., when
roll was taken. Precise instructions were provided for the morning's events: when to stand, how to
bow, when to applaud, etc. The group was ordered not to smoke, a fairly
painful command for Japanese young people. The recruits then practiced
singing "Nippon Denki Corporate Anthem" so there would be no errors during
the actual ceremony.

The Nyu-Sha-Shiki began at precisely 9:00 a.m., and there was a
perceptible ripple of pride, mixed with a little embarrassment, as the
first of the white-haired corporate elders on the stage stepped to the
microphone and wished a good morning to "my fellow company members." There
followed a formal address from President Sekimoto, whose speech was nicely
crystallized in its title: "Let's Build the Richness of Our Hearts Through
Our Jobs." Then there were pep talks from a couple of board members, the
head of the personnel section, and other in-house dignitaries. Then each
new member was instructed to open the packet under his or her seat, wherein
each employee found business cards (bearing the title "NEC
corporate-member-in-training") and an NEC corporate lapel badge, exactly
like the ones worn by the big shots on the stage. Next, one young woman
from the entering class came forward as representative for all her peers to
recite the New Company Members' Pledge, a short but highminded declaration
that "we will use all our strength and skill to improve daily life for all
the world's people through electronics and communications." After that,
President Sekimoto led the entire room in the recitation of the NEC
corporate oath.

All the songs, speeches, and pledges marked a mutual oath of loyalty. The
employees agreed, in essence, to be good corporate members -- in short, to do
what the company orders -- and the company agreed to watch out for the
employees in good times and bad, virtually guaranteeing that these workers
will never face a layoff and will not be fired for anything short of
outright crime. These are Confucian loyalties, of course, and they run
both ways.

All the NEC recruits who joined the company that day would be paid about
$1,500 per month, with yearly increases thereafter; the amount would be
based strictly on seniority for at least the next ten years. That way, all
the members of that day's starting class would remain on an equal basis.
In addition to the pay, they would get housing -- a single room with kitchen
in a corporate dormitory cost $150 per
month, about 90 percent less than market rent. They would get NEC
corporate health insurance, with many routine medical services provided at
the NEC health center. They would all wear their NEC lapel pins, vacation
at NEC resorts, play on NEC sports teams, and join the NEC company union.

They would all have accounts at Sumitomo Bank, because NEC is a member of
the Sumitomo keiretsu, or corporate grouping; in fact, a pass book for an
account that had already been opened in each new member's name at Sumitomo
was included in that packet under the seat. In short, what happened in the
Gold Ballroom that April 1 was that each of these people got a new job,
but they got something more than that in the bargain.

"A job in Japan," wrote Edwin 0. Reischauer, "is not merely a contractual
arrangement for pay, but a means of identification with a larger entity -- in
other words, a satisfying sense of being part of something big and
significant [which] brings a sense of security and also pride in loyalty to
the firm. Both managers and workers suffer no loss of identity but rather
gain pride through their company, particularly if it is large and famous.
Company songs are sung with enthusiasm, and company pins are proudly
displayed in buttonholes."

For all of the new company members who started work that day, the first
assignment was to be a two-month training course, covering the structure of
NEC, the makeup of the global electronics and communications industry, and
the rules of behavior that apply to employees. The packet under each chair
contained a 320-page textbook, the Business Manner, published by the NEC
Culture Center. This dealt with such matters as how to answer the phone
politely, how to exchange name cards, how to serve tea, how and when to
address corporate superiors. It's important to exchange respectful
greetings when coming to work first thing in the morning, the manual
observed, and to address corporate big shots politely if you meet them in a
hallway or an elevator. "But when you see a superior in the bathroom, no
greeting is necessary."

I got a real kick out of this book, particularly the section teaching the
new members how to bow. Bowing is a symbol of respect in Japan, a way of
expressing one's deference to others. It contributes to the wa [group harmony], and thus it
is too important to be left to chance. So the text lays out the rights and

"This chart teaches new company employees the right way to bow: 30 degrees
for greeting at a reception, 60 degrees as a 'normal' bow, or 90 degrees
when making an apology. Women should cross hands in front when bowing.
Employees should not raise their heads or smile."

It isn't only NEC that makes a big deal out of April 1 in Japan. The whole
country joins in to mark the august occasion of young people starting their
economic careers. These new working people are given the collective title
shin-shakaijin, or "new members of society." Retailers, bankers, and
brokers mount special advertising campaigns every spring aimed at these
"new members," with fancy booths set up, manned by attractive young people,
to help the youngsters figure out what it means to have a bank account or a
credit card. The department stores, acting on the theory that a kid just
out of high school or college doesn't know how to dress for success, offer
special package deals for new members. There's a yon-ten setto, or
four-point set, offering a two-piece suit along with a shirt and a necktie
guaranteed to match. For those even farther out of sync with fashion,
there are flve-point, six-point, or seven-point setto, which throw in shoes,
socks, and a handkerchief certified not to clash with the other parts of
the set.

Each year around the first of April, the Japanese TV networks all broadcast
documentaries and dramas about the excitement and trauma of this new stage
of life. I particularly remember a drama special one year in which Nishida
Hikari, a cute, peppy young actress, was cast as a cute, peppy new
corporate member at a big stationery company. The program showed our
heroine attending the Nyu-Sha-Shiki on April 1, taking the pledge, and
pinning on the company badge, after which she was assigned to a particular
section of the firm and ordered to report to the section chief for work.
The camera followed her as she wandered the seemingly endless corridors of
the giant corporate headquarters and finally found the right office. She
lingered outside in the hallway to take off her backpack -- she wasn't a
college girt anymore, after all -- and straighten her new pin-striped blue
suit. Then she bounded into the office and introduced herself: "Honorable
sectionmates, I plan to work so hard for this section that I collapse from
stress or a heart attack, so please welcome me as a member here." Everyone
seemed to think this was a sufficiently self-effacing greeting, and they
welcomed her with open arms. She was a member.

I met a woman who reminded me of Nishida Hikari that day I went to the NEC
Nyu-Sha-Shiki -- an earnest, nervous twenty-two-year-old who was seated next
to me in the last row of seats in the Gold Ballroom. A few weeks earlier,
no doubt, she had been hanging around some campus bar in jeans and a
sweatshirt. But that day, she was freshly scrubbed and neatly tailored.
Everything was so fresh and new, in fact, that the price tag was still
hanging from the neat blue pin-striped skirt that matched her neat blue
pin-striped blazer. I debated for a while but finally went ahead and told
her about that dangling price tag. She was horrified. She ripped off the
offending tag as if it were a carrier of bubonic plague, then turned to
thank me profusely, over and over again, as if I had just saved her entire
business career.

We got to chatting. In the course of conversation, this new NEC
member-to-be asked me to describe my entering-the-company ceremony,
back when I had joined the Washington Post. "What day do they do it over
there?" she asked. Interesting question. I had no idea what date I had
started at my company, and frankly couldn't remember anything that had
happened on the first day, except that I had stood for a while at the edge
of the newsroom until some sub-subeditor came up to say, "There's your
desk." That was my Nyu-Sha-Shiki at the Washington Post Company. The young
woman seemed crushed. I had really let her down. Striving to salvage the
moment, I quickly added the information that my company does in fact have a
corporate song of its own -- a truly great one, in fact: John Philip Sousa's
"Washington Post March." Dah dah dah-dah DAH dah DAH dah DAH dah ...
That seemed to help a little, but she was still clearly crestfallen at the
lack of ritual that marked an American's first day on the job.

And she had a point, I think. A society should make a collective fuss
about a day so important in the lives of a million of its citizens. A
society should sit back and take the time to make sure these young people
understand the privileges and responsibilities that come with moving on
to a new stage of life. Any society, as Confucius insisted, can benefit
from the rituals and ceremonies that remind people that they live in a
community with a shared moral and cultural tradition. For if there is
a collective moral voice in a corporation, a school, a neighborhood, or a
nation, it makes sense to be sure that newcomers hear that voice and
understand it. The whole point of ceremonies like the Nyu-Sha-Shiki is
to tell the members what is expected of them. Then a company, a school, or
a community will rely on the members' basic human decency to make them
live up to expectations, without the need for reprimand or punishment.
That's how Confucius saw it twenty-five centuries ago, and that's the way
things still work today, most of the time, in East Asian societies.

By T.R. Reid


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