TOKYO - Each April, hundreds of new graduates report for work in Japan's corporate world, all on the same day, all dressed in standard business black, and all ready to be moulded into staunch company loyalists.
Across the country, companies select and groom new staff under a decades-old formula that puts an emphasis on loyalty, diligence and conformity, not the vision or out-of-box thinking that experts say corporate Japan badly needs to halt its decline.
The current heads of Japan's companies are often criticised for failing to keep pace with fleet- footed foreign rivals, but most are a product of that system and there is nothing to suggest it will change any time soon.
'Companies were assessing your personality and looking whether you would fit,' says student Erina Seki, 23, one of those who went through the annual five- month ritual of dozens of job fairs, workshops and interviews.
'At one insurance firm, I was told that I wouldn't fit because I was too vocal about my opinions,' said the fourth-year accounting major from Tokyo's Rikkyo University, who finally landed a job with an outplacement service company.
'I thought companies were looking for perfect matches with the corporate culture.'
Unlike in many other parts of the world where the ability to deal with the unexpected or devise new solutions to problems are prized, the top concern for Japanese employers seems to be how well a recruit would blend in and get along with others, the students said.
They recounted being asked the same generic questions over and over again in what could be up to a dozen interviews for a single prospective employer.
The outcome? A culture where even outsiders brought in to shake things up struggle to challenge the status quo.
The six-year reign of Welsh- born Howard Stringer at the helm of Sony Corp, which ended after a dismal run of losses, and the ouster of another Briton, Mr Michael Woodford, as head of camera and endoscope maker Olympus, are cases in point. Both were replaced by company veterans.
A shortage of strong leaders and risk-takers, which the present recruitment and training system seems unable to produce, is seen as a major cause of the woes of Japanese companies, from its once-famed electronics industry to auto giants.
Toyota Motor, once the world's biggest automaker, has seen its market share slip to General Motors and Volkswagen, and has South Korea's Hyundai in its rear-view mirror.
Electronics giants Sony, Panasonic and Sharp, which have been slow to revamp loss-making TV businesses, suffered a combined US$20 billion (S$26 billion) loss in the past fiscal year, hammered by competition from South Korea's Samsung Electronics.
Squeezed by nimbler foreign rivals overseas, Japanese companies also face a shrinking market at home. The population peaked in 2008 at just over 128 million, and the government forecasts that it will keep falling over coming decades to about 90 million in 2060, when 40 per cent of Japanese will be 65 or older.
With just over nine jobs awaiting every 10 of the 381,000 students graduating and looking for work this year, and the most coveted with the likes of Toyota or Nomura even more scarce, job- hunting has become fiercely competitive.
Under a voluntary pact, the country's leading 840 or so companies grouped in its top business lobby, Keidanren, recruit during the same five-month window. Uniform entry salaries, today at around 200,000 yen (S$3,200) per month, are also common.
Rehearsed and scripted, the process leaves little room for spontaneity and frustrated students talk of a mad scramble of job fairs held in vast convention halls.
'Skills seem to carry little importance,' said Mr Shunsaku Funaki, a 21-year-old politics major from Tokyo Kokushikan University who so far has not found a job.
'Companies want to train and educate students from scratch, and that hasn't changed over the years. I want the culture of uniform job-hunting activity to be destroyed and want companies to seek students with variety.'