October is the season in Japan for naiteishiki, ceremonies carried out by large companies to present formal job offers to young people expected to become employees in the coming spring. This year, a shampoo ad aimed squarely at those looking forward to their own naiteishiki and students still in the job-seeking grind built buzz by asking a simple question: Might a company take a job offer off the table if your hairstyle is wrong?

October 1 is the traditional date for larger companies in Japan to hold their naiteishiki, ceremonies to formally present job offers to the group of young people expected to join them as employees when the new fiscal year starts in the following April. This year Typhoon Trami swept across most of the country’s main islands from September 30 through the morning of October 1, causing many firms to cancel their ceremonies, but Monday morning saw many young recruits in their seats, properly attired in the dark suits and subdued hairstyles that are the hallmark of the job-seeking set.

It was hairstyles that formed the hook for an ad campaign for Proctor and Gamble’s Pantene haircare product brand. Twitter and other social media channels built plenty of buzz for the image on the posters—the back of a young woman’s head, with her hair pulled into a tight, prim ponytail, a standard look for young women interviewing with companies.

The Pantene ad asks: “If I attend my naiteishiki with a hairstyle of my own choosing, can they take my job offer away?”
The Pantene ad asks: “If I attend my naiteishiki with a hairstyle of my own choosing, can they take my job offer away?”

Made from the Voices of Would-Be Workers

“Can they take my job offer away?” This message accompanies an image instantly recognizable as a young woman seeking employment in the corporate world: a black “recruit suit,” the de rigueur uniform for female applicants, and undyed black hair (or, as is often the case, hair dyed back to black from whatever she had worn during her carefree college days), tied in a single tight ponytail.

A closer look at the poster reveals it to be composed entirely of text—line after line of comments, complaints, and questions from young Japanese people engaged in the search for employment. “I wouldn’t want to be rejected at the interview stage for having the wrong hairstyle, so I’m putting up with this for now.” “To secure a good offer I’ll do what I have to do.” The young woman is a mosaic of the views of her peers on the entire process and the fashion demands it makes of them.

The Pantene product team carried out a survey of more than 1,300 job-seekers to gather their unvarnished opinions on the way they go about landing that all-important first position out of school—or, more importantly, the way they feel they are required to go about it. Applying for a job in Japan is said to be a matter of effacing the self. Young men and women try to blend in with the crowd, wearing the same dark suits, the same conservative ties, the same sensible low-heeled pumps. Companies frequently announce that clothing and hairstyle choices are entirely up to the applicants, but nonetheless, it is the rare man indeed who shows up with long hair, and the rare woman whose hair—if it is long—is not gathered at the back of her head. Nobody wants to give a potential employer a reason to single them out as noteworthy for the wrong reasons.

Fully 81% of the young adults surveyed reported that in the job hunt, they had “pretended to be someone else” to meet what they viewed as employer expectations. And when asked whether they were satisfied with the way they looked or dressed during the job search, 73% of them reported dissatisfaction with how they had presented themselves. Their comments and complaints were the perfect building blocks for Pantene to use in its ad imagery.

What Do the Companies Have to Say?

The survey also asked those on the job-offering side for their input. Out of the 200 firms that answered a question on whether applicants’ physical appearance was a factor in evaluating them, 45%, nearly half, noted that hairstyle didn’t play much of a role here. (Indeed, in another question, fully 79% replied that women could choose a hairstyle other than a ponytail without making a poor impression.) Meanwhile, a total of 71% of companies reported being open to the idea of applicants expressing more individuality in the way they dress and style their hair for interviews.

These survey results seem to point to a gap between what companies want and what university students think that they expect.
These survey results seem to point to a gap between what companies want and what university students think that they expect.

The Employment Consultant’s Take

For another take on this data, which indicates a lower corporate emphasis on conformity in appearance among job applicants, we asked Fukasawa Hiromi, a “job-seeking coach” at a school that trains applicants to land the perfect position, what she thought.

The standard image of the job-seeking young woman is a college student in a black “recruit suit” with her black hair tied in a ponytail. Fukasawa notes that this is increasingly not the case, though. “Yes, most applicants are still figures in black from head to toe, but a growing number of companies are asking them to come to interviews in the clothes they ordinarily wear, rather than this uniform.” These companies tend not to include any instructions on hairstyle, though, and as a result, even students in their everyday wear tend to play it safe by keeping their hair uncolored. This also makes it easier for those applying to other firms that may expect them to wear the standard suit, Fukasawa adds.

Could a young woman opting for unorthodox wear or hair jeopardize her shot at a job offer? “The companies are looking primarily at whether this person will be able to do the work they have for her,” she says. “They aren’t going to be judging her on the basis of her individuality. A person who exudes a confident air of a woman who has her act together will likely do just fine however she looks.

“Should I dye my hair black again for the naiteishiki?” asks another ad in the Pantene series.
“Should I dye my hair black again for the naiteishiki?” asks another ad in the Pantene series.

Fukasawa says that her school places little emphasis on clothes and hair as a factor to focus on in preparing for the interview process. “We want our students to project a lively, energetic presence and to speak clearly and boldly. The individuality that companies really want to see comes across in the positive image you can present this way, not from how you do your hair or what suit you wear.” It’s the look on your face and in your eyes that makes the real difference in how your appearance is judged, she notes.

In response to the question in Pantene’s ad, Fukasawa has a strong “no.” A person who has made it as far as the naiteishiki, after numerous company visits and interview rounds, should have an idea of the atmosphere in the firm and the look that will be appropriate for the ceremony. “Young people appearing in the naiteishiki should feel free to loosen up somewhat, compared to the earlier interviews when everything was still up in the air. Of course, it is a ceremony, so some degree of respectful demeanor is certainly called for.”

But, she states firmly, “There is no way that a company would rescind a job offer just because a person went to the ceremony with a hairstyle all her own. This would be treated as a real social issue by the media. I’ve never heard of anything like it happening.”

Where, then, did this tradition of complying with unwritten rules of fashion come from? “Over the last twenty or thirty years,” she says, “it seems like we’ve gradually slipped into this situation, with everyone expected to show up in a dark recruit suit and black hair. I don’t think anyone in particular set these rules down—although it may have been the suit manufacturers!” She has never heard of a company specifically asking applicants to arrive at interviews with this look, she adds.

While more freedom from the shackles of conformity might be nice, notes Fukasawa, there are some benefits to being expected to look a certain way. “These young people are heading out into an entirely unknown realm, the corporate world. If you give them free rein over how they style their appearance, it could introduce unease, or even fear, in some of them.

And, she notes, these young people with little real-world experience are not the ones who can take the chance on expressions of independence to change how Japan works. “Society as a whole will need to determine that it’s all right to apply for jobs in a suit and hairstyle of your liking. I’m all for this freedom and hope it comes about, but it’s not a sort of freedom we need to shove job-seekers into.

(Originally broadcast in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on October 1, 2018. Translated by Nippon.com.)

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