Yes, it’s true — the average Japanese worker clocks a quixotic number of hours at the workplace in their lifetime, enough to cause your average Non-Japanese to heave in disbelief and breathe a sigh of relief with the knowledge that they work elsewhere. The proverbial hard slog is quite possibly nowhere more apparent in the modern world today than here in the land where the sun rises and sets while the workers are still punched in. I had heard the rumours and humoured warnings of such before accepting this position, but felt confident that I, a somewhat hard-working and diligent individual, could handle it, if only for a year or year and a bit. I was also willing to accept the position as a means to administering what offered to be an interesting anthropological study into the possible reasoning for such absurd hours spent in the workplace and other such idiosyncrasies of corporate Japan. I wondered whether managers could be caught reading the morning paper through to the crossword before jotting a quick memo and calling it a day, the boss nicking off for a cheeky 8-hour “business lunch” with high-powered friends or employees napping on the job, keyboard a makeshift headrest, endless lines of “code, boss…” scrolling down the monitor. Some of this, curiously enough, does hold true, though no doubt to be found in workplaces all over the world. Yet the ever-comical scene of a Japanese worker, driven to the bone and deprived of sleep, nodding off on the train or, as above, on the job (one colleague just the other day quite nearly came up with a nasty bump after losing no trivial a battle with exhaustion and head-butting her desk) is a strikingly common one in Tokyo. Not to be confused with another rather amusing performance of theatrical comedy, that of the pie-eyed, dark-suited robotic creatures attempting composure on the last train home, limbs flaying like a drugged-up beetle on it’s back on a hot car roof.
Now that I am operating on the inside and get to see an example of the reality for myself, I have started to uncover issues that may give reason to, yet not necessarily justify, the horrendous work hours in Tokyo. Endless monotonous meetings spring to mind, which seem often to be called with the aim of merely discussing matters before coming to the sole conclusion that another meeting will be necessary at a later date, whereby discussions may continue. Not only do these meetings produce little more than minutes which read like a doodle pad in a public phone booth, but they often commence at or after the end of the regular working day, running late into the night or wee hours. Coming out of such sessions drained and with the knowledge that you’ve missed your last train and lost all of your friends does little to boost morale or afford one to place much confidence in the efficiency of such a system.
The worker is pushed to limits in Japan like cattle in Argentina, sheep in New Zealand, bovine in the streets of Madrid. Pushed beyond humanitarian limits in an alarming number of cases worthy of a call to the boss’ mum. Though, to be fair, it is often not the boss to be blamed for the bullying, but the traditional system in place in Japan which people seem all-too willing to accept. All in the name of production, that for which post-War Japan has become renowned the world over. Irrefutably, in the past 50 years Japan has achieved unquestionable progress — but to what end and at what cost? I would query the lack of picketing were it a country where people frequently picket. Alas, here in Japan, laborious work schedules are an established way of life.
The legal maximum overtime for most employees in Japan is 60 hours a month, an average of almost 3 hours a day in addition to the contracted 8. This is already a lot for the human mind and body to endure, before reckoning the effects of such conditions on Japanese society as a whole, prevailing on a daily basis, years on end, for a frighteningly large percentage of the workforce. A lot of this overtime is, shock, gag, horror, unpaid. It has come to be expected of employees as an act of dedication to company and country, saabisu zangyo. Of late, however, due to a quietly continued pressure from disgruntled employees’ families who have lost loved ones to work, the legal maximum is being pressed upon larger companies first, whereby working conditions are surveyed and directors, managers or supervisors responsible for employees working beyond the legal limit can be sentenced to imprisonment, not to mention loss of employment and face. There is, of course, opportunity for companies to slip through legal loopholes. Employers may request any extremity of overtime of employees should negative financial or other factors pose a threat to the fate of the company or nation.
Enforcing such a legal maximum of overtime, even with loopholes, seems an agreeable solution this side of a cultural revolution. However, until society has had time to adjust, the monstrous workload expected of employees in Japan is, rather than altered accordingly, instead pushed through a tighter schedule, much like cream cheese through a tea strainer, in order to maintain the same extraordinary levels of production within less hours. An example could be seen in schools throughout the country when, in April of 2002, the legal school week was reduced from six days including Saturday to the five regular weekdays. The effects on school teachers faced with the challenge of maintaining a six-day curriculum within five days was, on top of pressures already apparent, that of additional pressure, stress and an eventual decrease in the number of available teachers in Japan.
Strike! [ A slamming of desks in revolutionist fervour and a puff on a Gitanes ]
I highly doubt there has ever been a worker’s strike in modern Japan. If there were, it would likely be very crowded, very big news and very well-mannered. Conversely, what frequently occurs in Japan could be viewed as more damaging to society than peaceful protest. Naturally, the disgruntled demonstrator will seldom be granted all three wishes, though their voice may be better heard through strength in numbers, providing certain ears are willing to listen. The individual in many countries also has a chance to have their say and remonstrate, at least in part. But the group or individual in Japan, with the risk of unemployment, loss of face and fear of rocking the boat, tends to remain silent, bury issues of discrepancy and continue to function under the existing system or, as in the example of school teachers above, to walk quietly out, one by one. Surely neither of these methods are constructive nor progressive for society and it’s members.
There are three recognised employee protection plans in Japan — the Labour Law, the Company Work Rules and the personal Work Contract. If either the Company Work Rules or the personal Work Contract require the employee to work overtime, the employer is well within their rights to request up to or above the legal limit, depending on the severity of the situation at hand. Saabisu zangyo accounted for, the still disgruntled employee may, of course, choose to pursue legal action. There are Labour Standards Offices throughout the country which, incidentally, are overwhelmed with claims from dissatisfied workers. For foreigners, an interpreter is available in many cases if necessary. The question is, how important to the employee is this particular job? Seeking legal action will most probably render the employee unemployed and, should they lose the case, make it very difficult ever to work in this town again. The nature of the traditional Japanese beast is to fit the mould or be ostracised for failing to do so. This, however unfortunate, exists in societies around the world, though I know not of another society which boasts the term karoshi, or a local equivalent to describe death by overwork. The country has a word for it — says it all.
I do realise that I have painted a less than rosey portrait of working conditions in Japan, though I have merely made an attempt to outline what is all too commonplace. As with all broad sweeps there are exceptions and many positive aspects to be enjoyed while working in Japan. I have been fortunate enough to find myself in the company of people who, although diligent to the point of exhaustion, are real people who generally enjoy their work and have fun while doing it. Our Directors have recently been addressing the issue of meetings achieving little while costing a lot (in reimbursement of late night taxi fares, for one). There have of late been conscious efforts to manage workflow more effectively, though still more organisation will be required between company and clients before a healthier balance and level of efficiency may be achieved. There is also the younger generation entering companies, usually in the spring of each year, many of whom, I am pleased to note, are less willing to subscribe to the traditional path of establishing a lifer’s position in one company and doing whatever is necessary to move up the ranks. Instead, many young people today seem more interested in achieving and maintaining a sense of balance in their lives between work and play. What will be interesting from now will be the progress of those in possession of fresh perspective and desires akin to a modern world, as opposed to simply fitting the mould and adhering to tradition. Time will tell.