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Japanese sleep on sidewalks in search of jobs

Yasuhiro Osu, a recent economics graduate, arrived at midnight to be first in line on a central Tokyo sidewalk.

He and around 100 other young men who joined the queue during the night were not after tickets for a baseball game or pop concert. They were looking for a job for life.

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The job scramble among school leavers comes at a time when Japan has a ''high'' unemployment rate of 2.4 percent, ridiculously small by American and European standards but taken seriously in a country that treasures ''lifetime employment'' security.

The Labor Ministry reports 800,000 men and 500,000 women registered as unemployed. There are also many laid-off part-time workers who don't show up on the statistics.

Traditionally, Japanese private companies begin in October to recruit the school leavers they will hire the next April. Those who survive a preliminary interview are called back in November for grueling company examinations designed to produce the chosen few. And this year it definitely is only a few.

Under a gentleman's agreement, firms are not supposed to begin screening job applicants until Oct. 1. The Labor Ministry had been overseeing the process until recently and cited rampant violations.

A leading computermaker, for example, was accused of wining and dining top job prospects as early as August. ''These are hard times and companies need the cream of the crop,'' a business analyst explained.

Similar thinking was behind Yasuhiro Osu's decision to forgo a night's sleep and travel from his home in Takasaki, some 100 kilometers north of Tokyo, to camp outside the office of the Tokyo Marine and Fire Insurance Company. (Banks, insurance firms, and trading companies traditionally are regarded as offering the most secure employment.)

''I knew it was going to be a real battle because the company had already said it would only hire a handful of new graduates,'' the economics student said. ''I thought that by camping out all night it might impress the employment officer with my keenness and at least get me through to the examination stage. It's all a bit of a lottery these days,'' he added with a shrug.

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According to the private Nihon Recruit Center, the 1,734 companies listed on the Tokyo stock exchange's blue-chip first section will only hire about 63,000 graduates for the next business year. But more than half a million graduates are estimated to be seeking jobs. Recruitment by the major companies is down 12 percent from last year and is the worst performance in almost a decade.

And there are special cases like the Japan National Railways, which normally hires some 10,000 school leavers annually. Next spring it will not recruit a single one due to multibillion-dollar debts blamed in part on past and current over-manning.

Another survey shows only one in four male college seniors seeking employment with a ''front-line'' corporation will be successful. The situation is worse for women - only one in 11.

Female students suffer in the male-dominated business world from the traditional assumption that they will quit after two or three years to marry. Therefore, they have been hired largely to add a glamorous touch to the drab office decor, to make tea, and to run messages. Many women have concluded there is no choice but to get married because genuine career opportunities are closed to them.

Alarmed by the lack of job opportunities, many schools are reportedly trying to pull strings through the ''old boy'' network to place their star students in good positions.

Despite this many jobs are going begging. But they are almost all with small- and medium-sized enterprises that don't have the glamor or security of the big names like Mitsubishi, Sony, and Toyota. These jobs also lack the kind of opportunities for advancement, pay, and bonus increases, and perks like subsidized housing and vacation resorts.

But faced with a tight job market, many youths are being forced to lower their sights. A young office clerk recently wrote to a Tokyo newspaper complaining her company had tried unsuccessfully for six months through the local unemployment exchange and newspaper advertisements to find another clerk to share her workload.

''The unemployment offices are jammed with job hunters. But after finding no job that exactly suits them, they simply line up to accept their unemployment benefits. It's time this system was changed,'' she complained.

The Labor Ministry agrees. Officials are urging schools to provide counseling to their graduating students to adopt a more realistic approach to job hunting to avoid swelling the unemployed ranks in the months to come.

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