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The Gender Issue continued

Japan, with its falling population, plans to toughen its gender equality laws, making it easier for women to resume working after having children. “The Health and Welfare Ministry will propose an amendment to the 1986 law that would ban employers from treating women unfavourably because they are pregnant or have young children. Employers would also be prevented from firing a woman who was pregnant, or who had a child under a year old, unless they could prove that the employee’s family situation was not the reason.” Read the article

Posted by Victor in Culture, Links, Rants, Routine, Tips | 1 Comment »


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So, am I redundant, or what? Part I

Our company has just been through a re-structuring, a Company Renaissance — seems our boss had a brainfart late one night. The office has been divided into “teams”, with the suits, sorry, salespeople renamed “Producers” and team members renamed “Team Leader”, “Meh” or “Assistant Newdude”, according to time served. This, after we were already comfortable in what I had thought to be very sensible divisions according to skillset — sales dudes sell, web dudes do web … Instead, apparently, this new structure will “give teams the opportunity to focus exclusively on particular accounts”, no matter what your skillset may or may not be, in order to streamline workflow. So far I’ve only seen everyone asking each other many questions.

We were also assigned new seating arrangements to bring team members closer together, warm fuzzies. But here’s the kicker — two of the older employees were moved to a different … building. A company we work with from time to time has an office down the road. These two diamonds were allocated sunny new desks, down the road. I’m thinking, we have phones, we have email, we work on servers, but what about all the meetings we could do a good deal better streamlining workflow without? What about the fact that the affiliate company does something entirely different to what we do? It’s like buffalo assigning new sleeping arrangements, “so would you two mind going and sleeping in that tree over there?” Took a week to organise new workspaces, new phone extentions, new business cards … Streamline.

Here’s an article written on the issue of redundancy in old, die-hard Japan.


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Morning stretch

These guys are at it every morning the sun is out, perhaps inside when it’s not. Nothing like doing your morning exercises together to build team spirit while keeping fit …

Morning Stretch

I only wish I could give you the background music — they’re stretching to the theme of Rocky!

There is also this phenomenon, more common among the Japanese, I feel, to have a keen sense of peripheral vision. This guy caught me snapping his funky mug and is probably paranoid of doing his daily exercises out front now …


Posted by Victor in Culture, Rants, Routine, Surprises | 2 Comments »


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No Time?

No time to brush your teeth in the morning? No problem! Grab a pack of NoTime chewing gum.

No Time Chewing Gum

Listed under ‘Gourmet Foods’ at Amazon.


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The Gender Issue

“As a woman, I can rise much higher at a foreign company than at a Japanese one,” says Yuka Tanimoto. “The Japanese business culture is not changing quickly enough for people like me.” TIME Asia’s August 29 cover story provides disquieting insight into the current situation for modern Japanese women in the workplace and at home. Read the article …


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Man up, Nancy

In response to Taro’s rather sardonic words of wisdom (see: “Getting a job in Japan, the hard way”) you gotta be a little harder than that.

True: it’s not easy starting off in a foreign country. You don’t know the people, the culture, the language or the lay of the land. You need to establish food, shelter, income, contacts. This takes time and only a little effort, if you’ve already made the decision to succeed. As Taro pointed out in his follow-up article (see: “Getting a job in Japan, the easy way”), there is the option of coming to Japan on an Ex-Pat package and having everything organized and paid for by your employer. But what if you decide to change jobs? You’re on your own. Personally, I’d rather be doing it my way from the first, rather than be handcuffed to a company that isn’t my own. Which brings me to another option: if you have the resourses, start a business in your home country and recruit yourself to scout prospects in Japan. Not the easiest or most realistic option for many people, but an example of available options nonetheless.

My thing is, you gotta have an open mind and a positive attitude. Those of your reading forums and blogs written by foreigners who have lived in Japan for a while may notice a common thread of pessimism and bitterness in many writings. Well, in the words of Eddie Murphy, “If you don’t like it, you can get the fuck out!”

Expect to meet hurdles, hardships and annoyances — things are done differently here. There’s red tape, there are lingual and cultural barriers, there are dickheads. That’s the world we live in. Again, if you’re open-minded, come with a positive attitude and are open to exploring and enjoying the differences, you’ll go far. Where there’s a will there’s a way. Just fuckin’ do it.


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What’s in a name?

Monday morning, I’m not quite feeling on top of my game just yet. Still, regretfully, I automatically open my email upon starting up my mac. The last thing I can be arsed dealing with at the first is a slew of emails demanding activity of my brain right off the bat or reminders of inferior manliness and who’s here to help. But on this particular morning the near golden numeral ‘1′ blinks black and, feeling better about the day already, I click through to open my solitary mail. It’s a mail from my boss who, small, kind and ashmatic like the 80-a-day trooper that he is, can be very cute. I’ve been in Japan long enough to understand the flexibility of the word cute, or kawaii, to use this word to describe my boss without fear of homophobic attack or worse. This is the man who invariably pushes his boss to grant me leave to visit family abroad, while stepping in as a kind of adopted father in the office.

Needless to say it came as a surprise when I opened this particular mail to read the subject, “What’s your name?”. He may be getting on in years and a little closer to my grandfather’s age than my dad’s, but forgetfulness is not one of his usual quirks. That being said, he doesn’t write it down, it ain’t gonna happen. However, upon reading the contents of the email all became clear. He’d found a website which translates foreign names into their kanji equivalent, with roman reading for basic pronunciation familiar to foreigners, katakana reading, the character set reserved for foreign words adopted into Japanese, individual kanji character and combined meanings. For a pretty you can buy a nameplate with your kanji beautifully scribed, or, if like me such gimmicks are fun right up to the point that they become annoying, read around the bold red strikethroughs and use babelfish or the like to get the rest of what you need for free.

Here’s the link:

Japanese name translations

You might ask whether it is necessary to have a Japanese name while living and working in Japan. Well, no. The traditional personal signature in Japan is the hanko, or name stamp, although for foreigners the scribble will usually suffice. The hanko is the family name in kanji for official use, just as we would sign for authorisation, autographs, peeing in the snow. Which astounds me. Hanko are sold at specialist stores much like a cobbler sells laces or the icecream man sells cones. But this is your signature, right?! Your stamp of approval, authorisation that you are in fact who you say you are. We don’t flash our laces and expect everything to be hunkydory when applying for a home loan. “Black, cotton, cross-weave, congratulations!“. Yet in Japan you can just walk in off the street, buy the hanko for Suzuki or whatever name you so desire and go open a bank account. My first account was arranged for me by the employer and authorisation was the familiar signature while my name was written in katakana. But most employers will expect you to open an account with their bank of choice, meaning you jobhoppers may acquire no shortage of cash cards and invitations in the post to apply for that home loan. Wear your best shoes.

Upon opening my second bank account I was asked to provide my stamp to finalise particulars. I confessed to a lack of hanko, nor prior need for one, but the lovely clerk across the counter was adamant. No hanko, no account. (I love it when they’re firm like that). So I pointed to my name in katakana and informed her that that was the only name resembling Japanese I’d ever had. I could tell she’d done this before as she swiftly drew me to the door and pointed across the street where a hanko dealer was positioned right between the cobbler and the icecreams. She instructed me to buy a hanko before returning to complete our business. I asked what kind of stamp I should get, katakana or romaji reading, whereby she replied, “Whatever”. Whatever? Whatever. Whatever. So I bought the hanko for blah, meaning “blah”. I like the kanji. I got a bank account. Very wierd.

So get yourself a hanko and Japan is your oyster. Very trusting, locals here. In a cash-based society where people walk the streets with great wads of large bills stashed into Louis Vitton wallets, crowded trains where the pickpocket could have a field day and signatures worth their weight in zip, it’s a good thing crime is rare in Japan. Well, relatively.


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Paradigm Shift

I’ve been away from this post for a few weeks as I’ve simply been too busy working to be thinking about writing about it.

I’d like to take this belated opportunity to share with those of you not already wise to a most convenient word of the Japanese language. This word, like so many other Japanese words, can only roughly be translated, but is deeply rooted in local culture and may be viewed as a kind of requisite for anyone living here. The word is 「しょうがない」, or shou-ga-nai. This roughly translates into “such is life”, or “that’s life”. “Tough shit” may also suffice. The reason I would choose to highlight this particular word at this moment is selfish and simple: while others in Japan are enjoying a well-deserved Golden Week holiday, a string of national holidays which on lucky years amount to about a week off school and work, I continue to grind. World’s smallest violin, I hear it. It wouldn’t have seemed so crap had I known this was to be the case in advance, with time enough to be only briefly pissed off before recovering and changing plans. Alas, the day before my wildly anticipated week of camping in the wilderness far away from the ring of cellphones and alert of emails was to commence with a night hittin it hard with the lads, I was hit with two new projects due the first day back from break. After the briefing, I returned to my desk and hit my head with it before trudging home to get a good night’s rest. I have choices, or course — I could tell my Director what it is that I think he should do with the projects, or I could do what is necessary to keep the job I generally and genuinely enjoy. So, shouganai

It would be easier to deal if I knew that others in the company would also be at their respective homes working on other projects, a sort of comradely bond. Problem is, I know that my colleagues are all enjoying a week off. Why would I be the only one in my entire office to be assigned two new projects the day before a holiday due the day back? I asked my Director straight up and the response was that both the projects required an alternative solution, a foreigner’s perspective. Now, I know this to be somewhat true as many of our clients have of late been asking for freshness, newness, a global feel to our production. Hence the foreigner. It is rather satisfying to be in such a position. But Golden Week? Shouganai

The foreigner. I’ve been assigned projects in many languages other than English and Japanese, merely because I’m foreign and may have a better understanding of a foreign language than one of the Japanese staff, even if that foreign language is also foreign to me. Keeps things interesting, I finally get that chance to brush up my Spanish, French and Thai. There is a surprising lack of confidence in many Japanese who feel the outside world is just that — outside, far, far away, like different world entirely. In history, Japan has famously closed it’s island the size of the state of California off from the rest of the world in order to keep out foreign influence and allow the Japanese to be superbly Japanese. This has helped make it possible for the Japanese to hold on to a lot of traditional culture. The juxtaposition of old and new is often astounding and richly surprising, especially as so many other cultures of the world abandon tradition to lighten the load for the sprint toward globalisation. This isolation, however, has also created a very Nationalistic society, beyond the call of duty and on the brink of breaking point in a number of cases.

This time, however, Japan has realised that in order to keep up with the world, changes need to be made. While cultures, corporations and markets merge into giant melting pots, Japan is losing it’s stronghold on technological advancement which once made Sony and Toyota household names the world over. Toyota seems to be doing just fine. Nissan, on the other hand, was losing. Nissan couldn’t sell cars any more. Nissan’s answer: hire a foreign CEO. Carlos Ghosn has helped turn the company around with stylish new models, TV commercials with classic American soundtracks and a more international approach to the auto business. Ghosn has become a household name and local hero in Japan, as the foreigner who fixed a Japanese company. Sony, the company who produced among others the Walkman, the MD and helped put Japan on the map, lost the portable audio market to the iPod. The Sony Playstation, which once knocked Nintendo from the throne of game consoles, risks losing a large chunk of the market to Microsoft’s Xbox this year if the PSP and Playstation 3 fail to perform. Sony has been losing market share where it once made the rules. Sony’s answer: hire a foreign CEO. Howard Stringer will run Sony from his office in NYC, an attempt to direct things literally from outside Japan. Time magazine wrote an interesting article about Sony, Stringer and the current conditions of Japanese big business. Stringer was also pegged as one of the Time 100. All eyes are on him to make a considerable turnaround to the once golden child of Japanese business with his foreign perspective and outside influence and experience.

An interesting time for Japan. The decision has been made. The doors have been lodged open by a big brick called Globalisation. Young Japanese are embracing foreign ideas, keeping them in mind and creating something new. Old Japan, with it’s borders and big wooden doors, may be in for a surprise. Good timing for us foreigners. While I play my computer keyboard to the sound of the world’s smallest violin this week, I feel somewhat humble with the knowlegde that with my foreignness I may be in a position to help change the future of Japan — an open Japan.


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How do I get a job in Japan?

If you are fortunate enough to be coming to Japan with a transfer within your current company, riding on a rather sweet Ex-Pat package, power to you. If not, chances are you’re coming armed with little more than what you already know of the place and an interest in finding out more. Two important questions you might like to ask yourself before moving to Japan:

How long do you plan on staying?

What do you want to achieve during your time here?

The answers to these questions should help you understand what kind of work it is that you want or need to do while you’re here. If you’re planning to come for a year or two, have a look around and experience the place for yourself, teaching your native language, especially English, is one logical and fairly easy way without understanding of the Japanese language of having an income and a flexible schedule, allowing time to do the things you want. Below are a few sites which may help you find a teaching position:

ELT News
(General English Language Teaching news with links to the larger companies with schools in Japan)

JET Program
(The, um, JET Program)

(Specialising in introducing students and teachers for private lessons)

Find a Teacher
(As above)

Ohayo Sensei
(ELT Newsletter with advice and links)

Gaijin Pot
(Teaching and other positions)

It is often possible to secure a teaching job before you come to Japan, provided you have a University Degree in order to obtain your Visa. The larger language schools hold interviews and seminars in cities around the world — follow the links to scheduled interview/seminar dates in a city near you. The larger schools are also in a position to offer employees the comfort of Visa sponsorship, a job, an apartment, a bank account and health insurance organised for you when you arrive. Be warned, though, the larger companies are older, more traditional and often have stifling systems in place, while the smaller companies may offer the employee more freedom, without the security. That being said, it really comes down to how well you get along with the people you work with on a daily basis, so even with the big companies, it is possible to find yourself in a smaller, more relaxed branch working with a great bunch of people. Another reason why teaching your native language in Japan is relatively easy work for foreigners to obtain a Visa for is that it is work which a Japanese National is most likely unable do. If you’re not taking a position away from a Japanese National, the Government are more likely to grant you a stamp.

If teaching or a similar temporary post is not your vocation of choice for the long term, once you’ve settled into your new lifestyle in Japan it’s a lot easier to have a look around for something more desirable. Time in a temporary position while you get your bearings will allow you to meet people, learn more about the culture and some of the language, which will prove most valuable if you choose to enter a Japanese company. With or without the language skills, you will need an understanding of Japanese people and their social/work ethics in order to live among and work well with them.

If you would prefer not to teach while in Japan, below are a few recruitment sites catering for a variety of industries and skillsets:

Japan Times Jobs

Japan Today Recruitment Directory

Daijob/Work In Japan

Career Cross

CDS Consulting

Japan Jobs Guide

Tokyo Connections


Asia Net

There are also a number of sites specialising in recruitment in particular industries, especially Financial, Executive, IT and Sales positions, where the demand for a move toward international business and global awareness calls for more foreigners wanted in Japanese companies with foreign languages and experience in their respective fields abroad. It may also be worthwhile writing directly to or applying online with companies which already interest you — it may not state so on the website, but they may have positions or whole departments specifically dedicated to the needs of the international market.

In my experience, making the decision is half the work. If you already know when, why and for how long you would like to be in Japan, it’s quite possible options will fall in your path.


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Ah, the hours…

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.


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