Intense competition among Japanese companies trying to recruit new graduates has led some to engage in drastic and unprofessional tactics in a desperate attempt to lock in students who previously made informal commitments but have begun to waver.

Recruitment, which slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen a resurgence due to a pickup in demand for goods and services. Additionally, Japan's long-running demographic challenges are heightening competitiveness in the labor environment.

Interviews for job applicants from next spring's graduate class and others officially began on June 1, but many companies engaged prospective employees early in hopes of snapping them up before their competitors.

University students and other job seekers head into a venue holding a joint company job fair at Tokyo Big Sight in March 2022. (Kyodo)

It is what comes next that is proving problematic, though, with the companies aggressively attempting to hold these recruits to legally nonbinding agreements and then haranguing them to the point of harassment if they indicate an intention to back out.

A 21-year-old student who is soon to graduate from a private university in Tokyo was recently pressed for answers by a recruitment officer at a major retailer after she declined to join the company.

Last December, she received an informal job offer and submitted a written pledge in March at the retailer's request that she would not seek employment at other companies.

But since then, she received an informal job offer from a company she prefers and she informed the retailer of her intention to decline its offer.

The recruitment officer questioned her for nearly half an hour over whether she had "lied" in committing to the company and if she understood what the pledge meant.

In a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office, 11.6 percent of graduates in March this year said they had gone through similar experiences with companies that offered them jobs, up 2.6 percentage points from the previous year.

The increase reflects the challenges facing companies that are competing to secure new employees but also indicates a sense of desperation given their willingness to pressure recruits into joining, potentially tainting their employer-employee relationship before it has even begun.

Employment information service company Disco Inc. said that 42.2 percent of companies in its survey were facing "difficulties" or "extreme difficulties" in recruiting new workers as of May, up 14.1 percent from a year earlier.

The total number of job offers to graduates in March 2023 marks the first increase in four years, according to another private-sector survey.

In short, companies are vying for recruitments of fresh college graduates from a limited pool.

The government has set June 1 as the date at which recruitment can officially begin, but as the date is nonbinding, 65.4 percent of next spring's graduates had already received informal job offers as of May 15, up 6.2 points from a year earlier, according to leading job information service firm Recruit Co.

The fact so many companies feel compelled to circumvent the rules demonstrates the dire recruitment situation.

Of students who have received informal job offers, meanwhile, 43.0 percent said they intend to continue job hunting, Recruit said.

A male student, 21, attending a private university in Tokyo, who has received tentative offers from four companies, said he will keep his options open as the companies he is serious about wanting to join began interviews this month.

Japan's legal system seemingly falls short when it comes to protecting recruits during the hiring process.

A law came into effect in June 2020 that obliges large companies to prevent harassment and promote women in the workforce. In April this year, the regulations were extended to small and midsize companies.

But it only protects employees. According to the national guidelines, even if there are complaints of harassment by students seeking employment after graduation, there is only an obligation to make efforts to "take appropriate countermeasures."

"As students have the free choice of employment, they should apply to companies they choose without fear of harassment," Masanao Tanide, an employment consultant, said. "If they experience trouble, options include seeking advice from career centers at their universities, among others."

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