Other efforts to harness online platforms to force social change have not yielded widespread results in Japan. Yumi Ishikawa, a Japanese model, actress and temp worker, led a viral social media campaign two years ago calling for an end to requirements by employers that female workers wear high heels. The Labor Ministry acknowledged that it needed to “raise awareness” of the issue, and a few employers relaxed some dress codes, but many women still feel compelled to wear heels — and skirts — to the office.
To a certain extent, demography dictates the hegemony of the old in Japan. More than a quarter of the population is 65 or older, the highest proportion in the world. Japanese tend to live longer and in better health than many people elsewhere, and the media is filled with examples of vibrant craftspeople who remain active well into their seventh and eighth decades. But at times, outdated values of the older generation prevail.
And while age in many cases brings with it valuable experience, in Japan it’s often the credential that outweighs all others.
“Seniority and age is still more important than ability,” said Jesper Koll, a senior adviser to the investment firm WisdomTree who has lived in Japan for more than three decades. “Japan is the world champion of pulling rank on you, and rank is not ability, but predominantly just age.”
The seniority system endures in part because it provides a sense of security. Workers know the path forward, and the values are inculcated well before they enter the work force, with hierarchies enforced even among children.
“When I was in school, I heard that if you listen to your older sempai now, then when you become a sempai, people will have to listen to you,” said Ryutaro Yoshioka, 27, using the word for older mentors. Similarly, in the workplace, Mr. Yoshioka said, employees who “stay in the company will eventually rise up.”