Want a good job? Don’t wear anything that makes you stand out too much.
This has been the standard advice for legions of young Japanese who end up spending their final year at a university or trade school taking tests and being interviewed for a job at a company that might be the only employer they ever know. It’s given rise to what is known here as the “recruit suit”: black, conservatively cut, worn with a white button-down shirt or blouse and, for men, a tie of muted colours.
The recruit suit has become the de facto job-hunting uniform; wearing one is practically a rite of passage. An entire industry of retailers, magazines and websites is sustained by the idea that every year a captive audience of job-hunters will need advice on how to avoid embarrassment (or rejection) at an interview by choosing an appropriate suit.
The recruit suit is the safe choice. To many, though, it’s also a symbol of what’s holding back corporate Japan: too many young people too eager to do as they’re told, too few willing to challenge conventional thinking.
Last week a job counsellor at a university in northern Japan took a brave stand against the recruit suit. Toshiaki Mikuriya heads up career development at Akita International University: an institution that’s only been around for a decade. He assured students that there’s nothing wrong with wearing a navy or grey suit and that a pressed button-down shirt and slacks would be more practical during the scorching, muggy summer months. And he let some of the country’s biggest companies know that he had done so.
Mikuriya was looking out for many of his students who will have to make the long trek to Tokyo or Osaka from remote Akita. He was telling them to use common sense when selecting an outfit. You wouldn't need a black suit for work in Japan unless you were planning to duck out for a wedding (with a white necktie) or a funeral (black necktie).
The counsellor’s words had the effect of throwing a Molotov cocktail at one of the business world’s well-established customs for recruiting new talent –and that has earned the university a reputation for encouraging its students to think for themselves. Those young people have been landing positions at some of the country’s most prestigious companies. If a tiny university can break the mould then maybe we are witnessing the beginning of the end for the recruit suit. Not many young Japanese would mourn that. Nor should corporate Japan.
Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.