Understanding Japan (3): Analysis of Japanese people’s working methods. Advantages and disadvantages

July 20, 2017

By Eddy Montilla.

A way to understand what work means for Japanese people is observing the bees: They have an excellent system of work organization, spend almost all their live time working without complaining despite the toughness of their work and when they cannot do their job properly, their reason for living comes to an end. Now, let’s see the topic from two different angles:

Positive aspects of Japanese work system

(+) Strong feeling of belonging and loyalty to the company

From USA to France, from China to Kenya, from Australia to Brazil, that is, wherever you go, you will find the same way of thinking of workers with respect to the perception they have about their company: A job done for a salary. “I’m here because I receive a salary that lets me put food on my table. As long as they pay me, I keep working. As soon as I get something better, I am leaving them. If the company goes well or wrong, that’s not my business. After all, it is not mine.

”What’s wrong?” I asked my student, Mariko. “You look a little bit worried.”

”Few customers come to the store where I am doing a part-time job after class. “Taihen” (What a problem!)” She said.

Mariko’s wage is 850 yen per hour (around 9 dollars, as I write this article). Regardless the number of customers, she will get her same wage. In the same circumstances, how many people do you know who will be worried because they do not have many things to do at work? But not in Japan, where employees feel themselves responsible for the path the company has taken and feel the company’s failures and problems as theirs.

(+) ”I” goes behind “we”

The biggest secret and foundation of the Japan’s business success is not related, in my opinion, to this country’s technology advance, as many people think (Germany, USA and many others countries have great technology too), but to the idea and feeling of acting in unison, which are instilled in its citizens at early age. Japanese people put the “I” and the string of problems caused by the egoism that this word usually brings behind them to give priority to “we”. That gives them greater synergy for better collective development.

One day, some people were in front of their office to plant a small tree. One employee was holding the plant, another employee had a shovel, the boss had a stake, the youngest worker had a shower and a girl had a good camera to capture some happy and productive memories. I tried to imagine what Ted (a hypothetical employee in other country) had said in the same situation after being told to do the same job, but alone: “Who the hell does he think I am to send me to plant this f…g (expletive) tree alone? How about Richard or Carmelo? They are doing nothing as always!” As you can see, the boss’s decision only “helped” to add one more problem in an already very troubled relation.

(+) High sense of corporate social responsibility

Corporate social responsibility is something relatively new. In practical terms, it has been in the last three decades when companies have focused their attention on the society’s growth besides their traditional operations for profits. In Japan, however, this idea is older than that and, considering the country’s collective thinking, perhaps it has always existed. The society is you and vice versa. You improve to the same extend as your society does. add to that the fact that any step a Japanese company takes, no matter how big or small it is, underscores its commitment to offer quality in its products or service to the Japanese society.

(+) The pursuit of satisfaction for each task accomplished

There is a worldwide perception that Japanese people are always working. It is not 100 per cent right, but it is not far from reality either. To work is not an easy task. Otherwise, we would not be paid for that. The question here is how they can bear marathon work hours day by day. The reason might be that they find and feel some kind of pleasure in each task accomplished. Now let’s see the other side of the coin:

Negative aspects of Japanese work system

(-) Obsessive search for perfectionism

Japanese people are perfectionist and attach importance to the idea of change. They are constantly looking for something new, which means for them profits and growth. Consumers frequently see new products, qualitatively or commercially improved. Perhaps, Japanese people do not invent many things, but improve everything. The idea of perfectionism is good at first, but later tend to become obsessive for them. The stress caused by being pushed to be perfect, to do the right things all the time and to come up with something new have led thousands of people to commit suicide every year for decades. But this is only the tip of the iceberg: There are millions of workers who need sleeping pills or cans of beer to sleep. This is in addition to the retirees who are struggling with the same situation.

while having a cup of coffee inside a department store, I watched the way a Japanese shop assistant worked. The girl could not stay still for a minute: She was changing the position of the skirts, doing new combination for dresses and scarfs, etc., until a customer came. The motto seemed to be something like that: “If you do not have anything to do, then, just invent a new task.” In Toledo, Spain, I saw the opposite situation when I went into a store ran by members of a same family. They were telling me the story of the city, their store, funny stories and so on until a new costumer asked for a souvenir. I am sure they do not live a modern life as the Japanese girl, but perhaps they are happier. When you polish too much a piece of metal, you do not get more shine, but a smaller piece of worn out metal. To try to live with no limitations of any kind in an obviously limited world brings a lot of headaches.

(-) Lack of flexibility

I still remember that night when I was leaving a restaurant on a Friday night. I saw an impeccably dressed Japanese office worker hitting lightly with his head a light pole. He was drunk, but the reason of his action was not the amount of alcohol he had ingested, but some mistakes he had made on that day. The obsessive pursuit of perfection we mentioned before leaves little margin for error and flexibility because of competitiveness. While in other countries people work for a fixed period of time (“Well, it’s 6:00 p.m. It’s time to go home. See you tomorrow, guys.”), in Japan, you work until your job and your coworkers’ are done. It means that if “the things to do” they had planned for today are not done yet, do not expect to leave the company. Because of that, Japanese workers spend marathon hours at work working overtime. Take a walk at night and you will see those Japanese office buildings with lights on even at eight or nine. We are talking about more than 10 hours per day, not counting commuting time. In Africa, you might die of hunger; in Latin America, for lack of medicine or for an armed robbery, but never because of overwork. In Japan, on the contrary, Karoshi (death from overwork) killed more than 2000 workers in 2015. A case, extensively publicized in the national and international media, was the suicide of a 24-year-old young worker who did 105 hours overtime the month prior to her decision of taking her life. Many other cases like this one never come to light and are solved by the companies involved with the offer of millions of yen to the families affected as compensation. In most cases, workers find a way to cope with stress and long hours of work by thinking that at night they will be drinking like crazy, and they drink like crazy on that night because next day they will be working in that way.

Except for work, few expectations in life

If you go to a party with coworkers, you will quickly notice a lot of food, alcohol and, after drinking and eating, a lot of conversation about… work at office. While people try to detach working life from everyday life, in Japan, in practice, there is only one life: work. Hours of work surpass those ones devoted to their families and rest. Workers are usually transferred to other cities. Fathers move alone and rarely see their children and wives. In the last years, many Japanese couples don’t even have children, in part because of their jobs, so children are replaced with dogs and cats.

Japan is an aging society, but different from other countries with similar situation, the acceptance of immigrant workers is minimal and restricted to very skilled workforce. Today, Japan’s unemployment rate is low (less than 4 per cent) and enjoys economic stability and security. However, if there are no changes in its labour policy, the country will face a terrible workforce shortage and, family imbalance or breakdown or household comprised of one individual with consequences that are not at all promising to a point that I would prefer not to predict about them.

This article was originally published in the digital newspaper World And Opinion.

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