Sorry for the recent paucity of blog posts. (Paucity! Nice, huh?) I’ve been on vacation in the United States, so I took the first half of July off. I’ll try to resume my sporadic, semi-bi-weekly pace from now on. My recent relaxing holiday has inspired the topic of this post, though, which revolves around how Japan handles its enormously stressful workplace environment.
Any description of the life of a Japanese office worker makes it sounds like an unbearable ordeal. The parable usually goes something like this: The hapless salaryman squeezes himself into a hot, overcrowded train each morning for his hour-plus long commute. Lengthy work hours every day, often including weekends and with lots of unreported overtime, keep him away from his family. He is frequently checked up on by his intensely micromanaging boss as he chases his quantitative target.
His paycheck is meager by western standards, and even compared to foreign companies operating in Japan. Any mistake at work, no matter how trivial, can derail his career trajectory forever. Up with the sun and not home till long after it has set, the salaryman’s life is one of daily toil with little reward, devoting his life to his company like a serf to his lord, in the expectation of a comfortable retirement at age 60.
In a country that has a specific word for “death by overwork” (karoushi, 過労死), and strict government definitions for when a death can be classified as such, the office can feel like a crucible designed to burn away the salaryman’s individuality and entrepreneurial spirit, till all that remains is an obedient drone. This reads like the very definition of stress, doesn’t it?
To be sure, the pursuit of quarterly numbers and the struggle to produce results are a burden on the backs of employees in any country. But at my company, Marunouchi Fudosan (1), I’ve enjoyed a front row seat for business stress reactions I had never before seen with my own eyes.
Here’s one example. One of our department’s group leaders, a middle manager who let’s call Kobayashi (2), got so fed up with an underperforming team member that he punched the guy right in the face. In many places, assault and battery on a subordinate might well be a firing offense. In Kobayashi-san’s case, his rash action resulted in — well, nothing, really. He was made to apologize, and his subordinate was told to let the matter go.
Disturbingly, it later turned out that what seemed like a one-time overreaction was merely a symptom of something more. Not long after the punch-out, Kobayashi-san collapsed at the office and had to be wheeled out to an ambulance on a gurney. The cause of all this drama? You guessed it! Work related stress. If generating stress were an art form, Marunouchi Fudosan would be Michelangelo — a violently prolific Michelangelo, juiced on steroids and angrily daring his slabs of marble not to become beautiful masterpieces. It starts at the top, and it trickles down to every employee on the line.
Consider our incentive pay system, for example. Our corporate headquarters generates a fee revenue target for each sales person, rewarding successful sales people and teams with a modest bonus. However, our department head, who is the second-most powerful person at the corporation, then arbitrarily increases these revenue targets by 15% to 20% before the employees ever see them, so that each salesperson and team has to significantly outperform the company’s own goals in order to be paid a bonus. Obviously, chasing these inflated numbers is more difficult, and therefore more stressful. and it’s doubly frustrating to think that one could surpass the corporation’s own official target by, say, 10%, but still miss the ramped up number and therefore not get a bonus.
Of course the obvious question that emerges from this weird management practice is, where does all that unpaid bonus money go? I’ve wondered this for years, but I have never gotten a sensible answer. I did find it fascinating, however, that the one year our department missed its aggregate target, the big boss’s first reaction was to better motivate people the following year with an even greater mark-up on their quotas.
Adding to the pressure on the rank and file Is the fact that, all the while they’re trying to achieve artificially inflated revenue goals, the sales teams are being ruthlessly micromanaged. Each sales person has to report on his activities directly to his supervisor every three hours throughout the day. All day. Every day. I am not making that up. Honestly, I’m surprised these people haven’t opted to have their phones surgically attached to their heads by now. (3)
And yet, the funny thing is that all this pressure seems to generate pretty terrific results. Our department is almost always the corporate leader in revenue and profit. As a result, our big boss has been in his position for 15 years. This is nearly unheard of in a corporate culture that loves nothing more than to shuffle people around from one post to the next every few years, with little to no regard for what the employee actually wants to do. Practices that might well cause productivity to collapse elsewhere seem to bear at least some fruit in Japan. Sure, morale might suck, but at least everyone has something in common to bitch about. So, yay?
An interesting corollary to this emphasis on stress-motivated earnings enhancement is that people seldom use their paid vacation. The attentive reader may recall my French colleague, Anton, who worked with me when I first joined the company. Anton once told me that he believed he was the first person in memory to actually ask to use his paid vacation. Of course, management thought he was crazy. Close, he was French. And he took his holiday despite being pressured not to, as was his legal right.
Later that year I requested mine as well, and at this point I was informed that the company had resigned itself to the fact that their foreigners — all two of us — were sufficiently lazy that we would leave our beloved office behind to go gallivanting around on holidays. Okay, not in those words, but that was the gist of it. In fact, despite getting approval for my vacation, the big boss told me not to tell anyone else in the office what I was doing, lest this subversive idea somehow become a trend and our output suffer.
Tellingly, Anton quit the company six months after I joined, and is now very happy as a freelance translator and interpreter, setting his own schedule and his own revenue targets. Also, in the interest of fairness, I have to point out that Americans have an awful record of taking their paid time off as well, possibly in part because none is guaranteed at the federal level.
It took me a while, but I did finally figure out at least part of what is behind the reluctance to use paid holiday time. You see, Japan is a very community oriented place. Unlike in the west, the group comes first and the individual second. It’s a very well known and ingrained cultural trait, and in many ways it makes for an excellent society.
But if you’re away from your desk for days at a time, that doesn’t mean things stop needing to get done. So the attitude often is, “If I’m not here doing my job, someone else has to pick up my slack if necessary, and I don’t want to impose on my colleagues.” From that perspective, taking a nice, long vacation to recharge your batteries is almost rude, and there are more than a few calculating employers who exploit this viewpoint in order to minimize their employees’ time away from their desks.
This is not just an issue at Marunouchi Fudosan, either. Fewer than half of Japanese workers uses their paid time off. As recently as last year, the Japanese government was considering legislation that would require workers to use their paid time off. I can assure you that I, for one, would diligently obey such a law, but I would never be so naive as to expect universal compliance.
So why do people put up with all of this? Stressful commutes, absurdly long work weeks, modest paychecks and unusable vacation time? Well, as I mentioned before, one needs to be a good member of the group, and suffering together is actually pretty popular. People still actively conserve energy in response to the 2011 Great Tohoko Earthquake and Tsunami, and the subsequent meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Because Japan’s nuclear reactors were all taken offline following the disaster, Japanese families and companies were asked to help avoid rolling blackouts by setting their air conditioners at uncomfortably high temperatures in the summertime. Most are still doing this without complaint, five years later, despite a notable lack of any blackouts. Sharing the pain is a point of honor.
Another mitigating factor is the fact that long hours at the desk aren’t always that much of a burden, really. I mean, sure, you aren’t spending as much time as you might like with friends and family. But it’s not like most people are cranking along full tilt for fifty or sixty hours a week at the office, either. According to the OECD Compendium of Productivity Indicators 2016, Japan ranks 20th out of the reported 38 nations in labor productivity, well behind such countries as Norway, the United States, Germany, France, Canada and Luxembourg (the leader, with nearly twice Japan’s productivity).
The fact is, there can be a fair bit of news reading, net surfing, online shopping and foot dragging when no one’s watching. Understandably, for many people, avoiding burnout just means burning less intensely. If you’re averaging your eight-hour workday over ten or twelve hours instead, the only real cost is your time, and this happens with great regularity. So some of the Japan-specific workplace stress can be chalked up to an exercise in box-checking. “Yep, I worked a nice, long day today, and didn’t leave the office before the boss. But I also managed to research which car to buy next year, and what hot spring to visit with the family on our next three-day weekend.”
And speaking of three-day weekends, this brings up another point. Despite the epidemic of vacation avoidance, Japan is tied with Turkey for the most national holidays of any OECD country (4), at 16 per year. (Mountain Day was added as of 2016.) The U.S., by comparison, has only ten; the U.K., eight. Moreover, some companies here also take a week off from the office at the end of summer for the Obon celebration, although sadly they may require their employees to make up that time by working extra Saturdays during the year, like Marunouchi Fudosan does.
The point is, so as long as you don’t mind taking your holidays at the same time as half the country, you can still get some relaxation in without placing undue burden on your colleagues, and that’s important. Yeah, it’s going to cost you more, as all this demand at one time drives prices of airfares and hotel rooms sky high. But at least you aren’t leaving your buddies at the office holding the bag.
Finally, when you live in a pressure cooker, you gotta blow off some steam, and steam-blowing is an activity where Japan takes the blue ribbon. Once the workday is finally over, it is very common — and almost mandatory — for groups of colleagues to head out for the bar, izakaya or karaoke parlor to let their hair down a top least a couple times a week. Some salarymen might make it over to a hostess club, or even to the red light district where all sorts of mischief can be made. At the risk of losing my mixed metaphor privileges, when you’re blowing off steam, it’s no holds barred.
During these social events among colleagues — even the tamer, less rambunctious ones — drinks will be consumed and gripes about work will be exchanged. Sometimes complaining about the office is the entire purpose of the gathering. Fortunately for us post-business hours revelers, there is a long-standing tradition in Japan that complaining about work when socializing, even to the boss, has no real negative consequences.
I have an American friend who runs a company here in Japan, who learned this to his chagrin when he took his employees out for drinks, and one young Japanese fellow who had only recently joined the company complained frequently and bitterly into his beer about working for “some #!$&’% gaijin”. The next morning, my friend ordered that kid fired, but his head of human resources carefully explained that this would be quite impossible. Allowing people to vent without fear of retaliation improves morale, and it would be very unwise to tinker with that process. What happens at the bar, stays at the bar.
So does Japan love stress, as my title suggests? No, of course not. I think that, almost by definition, no one can honestly claim to “love stress”. But Japan does have a decent set of tools in place for dealing with it, including:
- a culture that promotes “sharing the pain” and suffering together as a group
- a practice of pacing ourselves across extended work hours, as supported by the productivity data
- enough public holidays to partially offset foregone vacation time and help avoid burnout
- a well honed expertise in after-hours relaxation
Maybe Japan doesn’t love stress, but it sure seems to know how to make it work.
- Not the company’s real name.
- Not this guy’s real name, either. Kobayashi is an extremely common Japanese name. I’m pretty sure “Kobayashi” is Japanese for “Smith.”
- The original version of this post incorrectly stated that Marunouchi Fudosan sales personnel had to report their activities to their supervisors hourly. I was corrected by a former colleague.
- The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a group of 34 democracies with market economies, often thought of as the world’s developed economies. The OECD does not include India, China, Colombia, the Philippines, Thailand or Pakistan.