3. Japan’s need for more and better adult learning opportunities

In a changing world of work, adults need access to high-quality adult learning opportunities that correspond to the skill requirements of employers. As the type of jobs available and their content change due to mega-trends such as technological progress and globalisation, adults need to invest in their skills to ensure they can cope with the changing tasks in their job or can move to different occupations. A declining share of workers who benefit from the traditional lifetime employment system further increases the need to invest in skills to be able to be mobile in the labour market. Adults can engage in different forms of training, ranging from training in education institutions that lead to formal qualifications, to participation in workshops and seminars or learning by doing. Box 3.1 describes the different forms of training and learning that are discussed in this report.

The increasing importance of training in a changing world of work is recognised widely. According to an international survey among individuals aged 18 to 24, 43% of young people in Japan think that technological developments will mean that they will have to retrain many times during their career, which is close to the average of the 19 participating countries (WorldSkills and OECD, 2019[1]). However, only 18% of them feel confident that they have what it takes to retrain when they are older if their job was automated. This share is lower than in the other participating countries. One of the key changes that will require adults to up-skill or re-skill is the introduction of new technologies, both at work and in daily life. Data from the 2019 Japanese Household Panel survey show that less than a quarter of adults acquire knowledge and skills related to new technologies, and most of them do this informally (e.g. through reading or watching television programmes and news). Only 9% of adults acquire skills and knowledge related to new technologies through training, with women and older individuals even less likely to do so.

The OECD Priorities for Adult Learning dashboard (OECD, 2019[3]) compares the performance of OECD countries in seven dimensions of adult learning: i) urgency, ii) coverage, iii) inclusiveness, iv) flexibility and guidance, v) alignment with skill needs, vi) perceived training impact, and vii) financing. Japan scores poorly relative to other OECD countries in several areas (Figure 3.1). It is among the bottom ten performers in terms of adult learning coverage, flexibility, inclusiveness, alignment with labour market needs, perceived impact of training participation, and guidance. Its performance is particularly weak in the alignment dimension, where Japan ranks last, and the perceived impact and flexibility and guidance dimensions (ranking second last).1

The next sections will discuss in detail the shortcomings of the Japanese adult learning system identified by the OECD Priorities for Adult Learning dashboard. In particular, the reminder of this chapter will focus on the policies to increase Japan’s performance in terms of adult learning coverage and flexibility, while inclusiveness, alignment and guidance will be discussed in the following chapters.

The Survey of Adult Skills shows that 35% of adults in Japan participate in formal or non-formal job-related training activities in a given year (Figure 3.2). This is slightly lower than the OECD average of 39%, and substantially below the participation rates observed in countries such as Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and Norway, where more than 55% of adults participate in training. Moreover, when adults participate in non-formal training, they do so only on average for 24 hours per year in Japan, compared to an average of 31 hours across OECD countries. When looking at informal learning at work, 66% of employed adults in Japan regularly learn from others, learn by doing or keep up-to-date with new products or services, which is slightly lower than the OECD average of 70%. Less participation in formal or non-formal training in Japan than some other OECD is not made up for by greater participation in informal learning. It is much less common in Japan (66%) than in Chile (84%), Mexico (83%), the United States (82%), Finland (80%) and Norway (80%). Japanese workers engage as frequently as workers in other OECD countries in learning by doing, but less frequently in learning from others and keeping up-to-date with new products and services.

When looking at training provision by employers, Figure 3.3 shows that 79% of firms in Japan with at least 30 employees provide training to their workers. This is slightly higher than the OECD average of 75%, but substantially lower than in Norway, New Zealand, Sweden and the Czech Republic where more than 90% of firms report to provide training. However, it should be noted that the numbers for other countries also include firms with between 10 and 20 employees, and the numbers would probably be higher if those workers were excluded (as training provision generally increases with firm size). While these data on training provision show that employers are indeed providing training, they do not tell us anything about the share of works covered by this training. Data for European OECD countries show that only 40% of firms that provide training provide it to more than half of their workers.

Ideally, to fully understand the training market coverage in Japan one would like to have data on the number of jobseekers and workers participating in training both in the workplace and at public and private providers. Unfortunately, data on participations of adults in training by provider type are scarce, thereby limiting the possibility of drawing a clear snapshot of the current adult learning situation.

Training patterns for workers are particularly difficult to grasp. The Basic Survey of Human Resource Development is a rare source of information, providing statistics on the proportion of firms with at least 30 employees offering on-the-job training (OJT, i.e. training that is carried out in the course of daily work, in which superiors directly instruct their subordinates on work procedures) and off-the-job training (OFF-JT, i.e. training that is carried out either in a group setting within the company or outside the company). Off-the-job training is typically organised for training new hires (mostly for junior new hires, but also for new mid-career and management hires), and for the development of management skill and basic business values and attitudes. Similarly, new employees are more likely to benefit from on-the-job training than other workers.

Overall, between 2014 and 2017 there has been a slight increase in the share of companies offering training to their workers (Panel A of Figure 3.4). As expected, there are fewer opportunities for non-regular workers to develop their skills than for regular workers: in 2017, only 28% and 40% of surveyed firms provided on-the-job and off-the-job training, respectively, to non-regular workers, compared to 63% and 76% of firms offering OJT and OFF-JT to regular workers. These figures also suggest that off-the-job training is more common than training carried out during daily work. It is worth to note, however, that off-the-job training cannot be considered entirely training in external (private or public) providers, since it also includes training within the company (e.g. with a number of workers gathered together in one place).

To investigate further the reliance on external providers in Japan, Panel B of Figure 3.4 distinguishes off-the-job training according the type of organisation providing training to regular and non-regular workers in 2017. As the Basic Survey of Human Resource Development allows multiple responses, it is not possible to clearly estimate patterns of the Japanese training market, but these data are a good starting point. For instance, it turns out that more than 3 in 4 firms offering off-the-job training actually provide it within the company, and a significant share (29% for regular workers and 18% for non-regular workers) provide it in a parent company belonging to the same group. In this sense, off-the-job training still belongs to a large extent to the category of learning opportunities offered in the workplace. For what concerns external providers of adult learning, public bodies are used relatively seldom: less than 2% and 6% of firms send their regular workers to attend training in universities and public vocational institutions, respectively. Numbers are even lower for non-regular workers. In contrast, almost one in two (one in five) companies rely on private providers for their regular (non-regular) workers. There is also a relatively important proportion of firms offering OFF-JT in public interest corporations – such as the Professional Development Association or the Labour Standards Association – and in business associations – such as the chamber of commerce or cooperatives.

This information should not be considered representative of the training patterns of all workers, since it does not take into consideration learning activities that workers may engage in on their own initiative. According to the Basic Survey of Human Resource Development, figures of self-development (i.e. activities that workers voluntarily perform to continue their professional life and improve their vocational abilities) are quite high: on average, 35% of workers (45% and 19% of regular and non-regular workers, respectively) engaged in some sort of self-development activities in 2017, and these shares have been stable in the last ten years.2 Analysing how workers engage in self-development activities shows that for half of them this involves some sort of informal self-study through internet, television and books (Figure 3.5). Almost a third of them also participate in study groups voluntarily established within their workplaces. What is even more interesting, however, is the information on participation to external training. Like in OFF-JT in Figure 3.4, the share of workers attending training in public providers is extremely low: less than 2% of self-development activities take place in either universities or public vocational organisations. The use of private providers, instead, is again more common and it is undertaken by almost one in four workers who engage in self-development.

While self-development activities are carried out at the initiative of the worker, some receive support from their employer: 82% of employers say they support regular workers who undertake self-development, but only 55% do so for non-regular workers. The most common support measures include financial assistance, provision of information, opportunities to organize in-house study sessions and flexibility in working hours. Data from the Recruit Work Survey show that there is a large overlap between the workers who engage in job-related self-development activities and those who participate in employer-initiated training and learning opportunities: 77% of workers engaging in self-development had also benefited from employer-initiated learning activities. This suggests that those who do not receive employer-supported training or learning opportunities do not compensate for this lack of skill development opportunities by engaging in learning on their own initiative, with only 19% of workers who did not benefit from employer-initiated training, engaged in self-development activities.

Some caution in interpreting these results is required since it is hard to verify these estimates with other sources, due to a lack of comparable data. For example, the 2019 National Employment Practices Panel Survey by the Recruit Works Institute asked roughly 31 000 workers a question on the availability of on-the-job training in their workplaces. In this survey, only 8% of the surveyed workers report receiving guidance from senior staff based on a proper training programme. Even if a broader definition of OJT is adopted (including, for instance, those not on a fixed training programme, but still receiving guidance from senior staff as needed), the resulting OJT estimate of 25% is still far from the one from the Basic Survey of Human Resource Development (63% and 28% for regular and non-regular workers, respectively). This difference is probably due to the fact that the Basic Survey of Human Resources Development interviews only establishments with 30 or more employees and smaller firms may be less likely to implement on-the-job training.

Surveys like the Basic Survey of Human Resources Development can only provide us with relative shares of workers taking up learning activities, but not with absolute numbers due to the exclusion of firms with less than 30 employees. On the other hand, the Basic Survey of Employment Structure by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications can be used to provide some estimates of the absolute number of workers involved in adult learning. In 2017 approximately 24 400 000 workers undertook training activities to get help with their work. The vast majority of them got training through their employers, and – while most of it was carried out in the workplace (14 200 700) – an important share of workers benefitted also from training in external providers (Table 3.1). In particular, among workers being offered training by their employers, approximately 777 000 attended courses in universities or public vocational facilities, while as high as 11 737 000 had learning experiences with private providers.3 A similar picture emerges when looking at the 14.8 million participants who voluntarily engaged in self-development activities. Among them, over 1 million relied on training by public providers, while 10 594 000 enrolled in some kind of learning in private providers. Almost 9 million workers also engaged in informal self-study through books, internet, etc.

Information about the training patterns of jobseekers is easier to access, at least for those programmes subsidised by the government, since it is meticulously collected by the Counsellor’s Office for Human Resources Development of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. In 2018, 295 000 unemployed adults – representing approximately 18% of the unemployed – received publicly funded training (Table 3.1). Of them, 53% (157 000) accessed training in public providers, while the remaining 47% (138 000) relied on private providers contracted directly by the state or under the so-called “Support System for Job Seekers”.4 This scheme is intended to ensure training opportunities for those jobseekers who are not covered by unemployment insurance. It provides JPY 100 000 per month to unemployed individuals undertaking vocational training with certified private providers, under strict requirements for appropriate training, attendance, and visits to Hello Work.5

In spite of their differences, taken altogether, data from various sources all point at the same two messages. First, participation in adult learning is low, by international standards. According to the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) the share of adults participating in job-related training in Japan is 4 percentage points lower than the OECD average of 39%. Second, the vast majority of training activities offered by Japanese firms still takes place within the company (either in an OJT or OFF-JT setting). This should come as no surprise, given Japan’s traditional employment practices of lifetime employment and long working hours, which limit workers’ need and time for external training. Private providers are used by a significant share of firms to provide off-the-job training, while public institutions have so far only a marginal role in the Japanese adult learning environment. Such reliance on in-house training by employers hinders the future-readiness of the adult learning system, since employer-provided or sponsored training mainly focuses on job-specific skills and does not ease the kind of adjustments that the Japanese economy in undergoing, namely the emergence of new jobs and sectors and a more fragmented work-life with more frequent transitions between jobs. The next section will therefore examine the barriers to adult training in Japan and how to remove them, while Section 4.2 in Chapter 4 will focus on how to expand the adult learning market beyond training by employers.


[2] Fialho, P., G. Quintini and M. Vandeweyer (2019), “Returns to different forms of job related training: Factoring in informal learning”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers 231, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/b21807e9-en.

[3] OECD (2019), Getting Skills Right: Future-Ready Adult Learning Systems, Getting Skills Right, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264311756-en.

[4] OECD (2019), How future-ready is Japan’s adult learning system?, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/japan/Future-ready-adult-learning-2019-Japan.pdf (accessed on 28 July 2020).

[1] WorldSkills and OECD (2019), Youth Voice for the Future of Work.


← 1. It needs to be noted that some sub-indicators for those dimensions are missing in the case of Japan, which potentially biases the overall ranking. However, when re-calculating the indicators for each country using only the sub-indicators for which Japan has data, the conclusions remain the same: Japan is ranked last for flexibility and guidance and for alignment, and is in the bottom three for perceived impact.

← 2. Similar results are found in the Recruit Work Survey, according to which 33% of works (including in firms with less than 30 employees) engaged in self-development activities to improve their job-related knowledge or skills in 2017.

← 3. Note that numbers do not add up, given that respondents were allowed multiple answers.

← 4. It is therefore not known the share of jobseekers spontaneously taking training courses outside the scope of the “Support System for Job Seekers” scheme.

← 5. https://www.mhlw.go.jp/english/dl/Overview_eng_02.pdf.

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