TOKYO — At first it's just a trickle, the occasional fresh-faced young man or woman in a charcoal-gray suit. But by March, the streets of Tokyo are teeming with anxious university seniors rushing off to interviews at the few companies that haven't yet hired their fill of new graduates.
Japan's long economic decline has made the recruiting ritual - performed in plain dark suits bought for the purpose and often discarded once a job is landed - a more brutal rite of passage for each successive graduating class over the last decade.
A recent government survey showed that a record low of 73.5 percent of university students graduating this spring have managed to find jobs. The figure is down several percentage points from last year, and is at its lowest point since the survey was first taken in 1996.
Earlier this month, some 3,000 students still in search of a job held a pep rally in downtown Tokyo to bolster their spirits. The same day, Japan's largest jobs fair opened to help coach interview skills and application writing.
And yet this year's graduates may actually have more reason for hope than their predecessors over the past decade. After years of downsizing, a few Japanese firms have recently announced plans to increase their intake of new graduates as the economy showed annualized growth of 6.4 percent between October and December.
Despite the recent upturn, however, many Japanese students continue to feel confused. Their sense of their country's place in the world economy - and often their own personal notions of the purpose of employment - remain unclear and rather unsettled.
Young Japanese are keenly aware that their country's economy no longer has the status it once enjoyed as a red-hot global superstar.
"It's difficult to inspire them to persevere - many students just wither, say they can't manage, and become pessimistic," says Yoshihisa Ohmura, a professor of sociology at Musashi University in Tokyo.
"We keep hearing that the economy is in poor shape," says politic science major Kana Aoyagi, sitting under a cherry tree on the campus of prestigious Rikkyo University in Tokyo.
But because students haven't yet experienced life in the ranks of regular working society, "we don't really know how best to
contribute," she says.
Students these days don't have the luxury of having a clear game plan, says Professor Ohmura. The generation born after the war that built Japan up from smoking ashes to a world-beating economy "had some kind of goal - they possessed the will to compete to win, and they just gritted their teeth and persevered."
The lack of a sense of purpose is cited as one of the reasons an increasing number of graduates are opting out of the recruitment merry-go-round and choosing instead to spend a few years in low-skill, low-security, part-time jobs while they continue to seek out their true vocations.
Government figures show the percentage of part-time workers in Japan's work force has doubled since 1987 to one quarter in 2002.
About half of all students who work part time after leaving school do so either because they either remain undecided as to what career suits them or because working part time appears to be a more attractive lifestyle, according to research by the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training.
Because many young adults live at home and have few expenses, they can spend the bulk of their salaries on the latest Louis Vuitton bags or computer games.
Some graduates work at call centers for a few months before quitting to go backpacking in exotic locations overseas, repeating the cycle every year or so. Others hold down dead-end jobs in convenience stores or refilling canned drink machines to support expensive hobbies such as recording and producing experimental punk music at night.
"It's true that more people are opting for short-term part-time jobs," says international law major Nobuko Nakagara. "But there are also those who have a clear vision for their future."
Her own goal, she explains, is "to do work that has an effect on society," citing her experience as a volunteer in Turkey. Although it was a short-term stay, helping with a project to build a park for the women of a local village reinforced her desire to do work assisting other people.
"From that experience, I discovered that even doing a small amount as part of an organized effort can end up being useful to someone."
Ms. Nakagara is not alone in hoping to make the world a better place.
"I think the environment will be an important theme, both for corporations and the public sector," says economics major Yukinari Ota, pausing on his way to meet friends for a bowl of ramen noodles. "At the moment, solving environmental problems is considered something of a burden - I'd like to somehow turn it into a plus."
But even many of these idealistic students are finding their aspirations frustrated.
Recent evidence suggests that some are giving up on Japan altogether and turning to overseas job markets. Those who have studied abroad to improve their language skills face a shrinking pool of prospective employers as many foreign corporations have cut or reduced operations in Japan. And because a degree from a foreign university often raises eyebrows at Japanese corporations, these students are sometimes forced to take jobs unsuited to their skills.
Young women in particular, who often receive lower pay and may have little chance of promotion beyond clerical level positions, are increasingly looking to Singapore or Hong Kong, where their English and Japanese language skills are highly valued. A number of staffing agencies in Tokyo have recently set up services to help job seekers find work overseas.
For those left behind, the prospects are frequently poor, and many students end up lowering their sights in the quest for the ideal job.
A nationwide survey of this year's graduating class conducted by Mainichi Communications, a private research firm, shows that the percentage of students who would be happy with any kind of job at all had reached 80 percent for the first time since the survey began in 1979.
At the same time, those who aspired to be able to do work they had an interest in had slipped to new lows. The research firm said this suggested that students were more willing to trade in their personal aspirations for job security during the prolonged economic downturn.
• Sanae Kawanaka contributed to this report.