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WHEN Masanao Kobayashi graduated from university, he entered the nation's leading ceramic-capacitor manufacturer. About four years later, he left and joined a major cameramaker. One year later he quit again. ``I admit it's better to receive higher salary, but my priority is to do a job which I find interesting,'' says Mr. Kobayashi, who now works for a small computer company.

Not very long ago, the 32-year-old software engineer would have been labeled a heretic for his job-hopping behavior. Company loyalty - and the reward of ``lifetime employment'' - has been an almost religious principle in Japan, credited with helping forge the Japanese economic miracle.

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Kobayashi is only one of millions of Japanese who are looking for more out of their job than the safety and security of the company womb. The Management and Coordination Agency says 2.36 million people changed their job during the year ending February 1988, a 34.9 percent jump from the previous year.

The phenomenon has even spawned a new industry of services for would-be job changers. Numerous magazines, for example, offer information on openings. One of them, DODA, newly turned out by the publishing company Gakusei Engo-Kai Inc. this year, advises readers on how to quit their job without leaving a bad feeling behind them, how to write a resignation letter, how to make a hit in a job interview, even information on how to get unemployment insurance.

Experts offer several reasons for the change. Affluence is changing the priorities of Japanese workers. A labor shortage encourages confidence in finding new work. Companies are diversifying into new industries requiring experienced workers.

The lifetime employment system, prevalent primarily in the larger companies, has been a foundation of Japan's postwar economic growth. The concept gained popularity in the early 1960s, when Japan was experiencing the first wave of economic boom from postwar reconstruction. Major companies were expanding rapidly and wanted to retain trained personnel. Employees eagerly sought the security of staying with the company till retirement, guaranteed regular raises based solely on seniority.

While the system provides employment security, it frustrates those seeking more responsibility and rapid advancement. This has hit the postwar baby-boom generation, now around the age of 40, who find themselves waiting in long lines for limited senior positions in the company.

``I thought nothing would change if I remained in the company,'' says Kazuo Mikami, who left a press service last year, after working for more than 15 years, and joined a securities firm. Mr. Mikami was also no longer content with the long hours that company life demanded.

``People are realizing that even if they get promoted, they just get busier,'' he says. An avid fisherman, he was looking for a company with a five-day workweek. (Many Japanese companies have six-day weeks.)

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``When I become 60, I want to move to a seaside resort, with a facsimile [machine] and a word processor, so that I can enjoy both fishing and working for the rest of my life,'' he says.

Japan's rising standard of living has undermined the feeling of vulnerability that kept most Japanese chained to their desk.

``When there are enough food, clothes, and a place to live, people's interest is directed to other things, such as how to enjoy their life and spend their leisure time,'' explains Keimei Shimokawa of Gakusei Engo-Kai.

The current economic boom in Japan has created a labor shortage, drawing in foreign workers from neighboring Asian nations to meet the demand for low-skill labor. The prosperity has also narrowed the salary gap between big companies and the small, making it easy for Japanese to job-hop without worrying about losing income.

University students still prefer to work for Japan's huge corporations. ``More and more in this university aim to enter a big company,'' comments an employment counselor at Tokyo's Sophia University.

``This tendency will not change so soon, because parents have educated those students to enter a big company,'' says Mr. Shimokawa.

But half of new graduates say they aren't sure they will work for one company all their life, Gakusei Engo-Kai found in a recent survey. ``As moving to a better company becomes more popular, I think they will follow,'' he says.

The attitude of many Japanese companies toward the system of hiring employees until retirement age (usually 60) is also changing. According to the Japan Institute of Personnel Administration, 26 percent of Japanese companies think the lifetime employment system is coming to an end. They cite as reasons the rapid technological revolution, the burden of paying high salaries to all their aging employees, and changed values among workers.

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