How retired top athletes are finding jobs in Japan

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An increasing number of Japanese companies are hiring top athletes as full-time employees after retirement from competition, appreciating their mental toughness and pursuit of success at any cost.

“I wondered if I could work at my desk from 9 a.m. until 5:35 p.m.,” Haruka Ueda, 26, said, recalling her decision to work for Kikkoman Corp. after winning a bronze medal as a member of the Japan women’s 4 x 100 meters medley swimming relay team in the London Olympic Games in 2012.

Ueda joined the soy sauce maker in 2011 as a contract worker on condition that she would become a full-time employee after retirement. “I could concentrate on swimming until I got burned out because my postretirement job was guaranteed,” she said.

Ueda retired from competition at the end of last year and has since been working for the public relations section at Kikkoman.

Tsuyoshi Matsuzaki, head of the personnel department at Kikkoman, said Ueda is “the type of person we need because she made all-out efforts to attain her goal and produced results.”

Construction machinery maker Komatsu Ltd. converted the status of female judo competitors hired as contract employees to full-time staff members in the early 2000s.

The change has made members of the judo club at Komatsu “more connected with the company” and attracted top-notch judokas including two-time Olympic gold medalist Ayumi Tanimoto, 32, said Atsuko Nagai, 40, the section chief in charge.

Nagai was also a judoka and rival of five-time Olympic medalist Ryoko Tani, 38.

Former top athletes maintain a can-do attitude and show respect for senior workers, said Yuichi Ito, deputy head of the personnel department at Komatsu.

Companies used to hire top athletes for advertizing purposes. After Japan’s economic bubble burst in the 1990s, companies discontinued supporting athletes for the sake of “management efficiency.” As a result, athletes found it difficult to continue competing and began to worry about their postretirement life.

In 2010, therefore, the Japan Olympic Committee created the “Athnavi” website to make job arrangements between athletes and companies. The JOC posts data about athletes on the site, and companies can find those matching their needs and hire them on condition they keep them on the payroll after retirement from competition. More than 30 athletes have found employment through the program.

The Japan Business Federation, the nation’s most powerful business lobby, said in March that it will strengthen support for athletes to help them better prepare for the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. Job training and recommending employers are among measures the federation, known as Keidanren, will consider, it said.

But athletes in low visibility sports are struggling to find jobs even through the Athnavi program because they are hardly in demand for advertising purposes. Retired athletes can make their living as coaches only in a limited number of sports such as judo and volleyball.

“It may be financially difficult for companies to own teams,” Shigeru Hatta, a JOC director, said. “But they can support athletes by hiring them on an individual basis. Athletes, who have endured hard training, can be highly useful to them.”

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