(since this turned into a bit of a serious topic, I included sources to where I got the information)
Whew, I just had a busy fortnight! First, my sister and her boyfriend come over to visit for a few days (I’ll write about them on Friday), then I headed off to Korea for a week.
Anyway, I’m back now, and ready to start writing again, and since it’s Wednesday, that means it’s time for a look at Japanese culture, from an outsider’s perspective. This week: Golden Week and (some) Japanese Workplace Environments.
Golden Week is the name given to the group of holidays surrounding the end of April and the start of May (April 29th, May 3rd,4th,5th). These four days, which often line up with weekends, give the single longest period of days off for many Japanese workers.
Most, will take some of their annual leave during this time, to make an enormous holiday. I, for example, used five days of leave, and got a total of 12 days off in a row.
During Golden Week, it seems as though everyone in Japan is travelling from one place to another. Shops are constantly busy, subway stations are filled with visitors, whose faces are glued to maps, and ‘greasy spoon’ restaurants, which previously only saw business from revellers on a night out, now have lines around the corner.
Golden Week is a time of revels in Japan, with most towns putting on small festivals of markets. It is also very important for people’s well-being, considering how hard many Japanese people work. Many Japanese workers avoid taking their paid vacation, and will work extra (unpaid) hours to show dedication to their job. Which brings me to the second part of the post:
—SOME BAD JAPANESE WORKPLACE PRACTICES
(and I’d like to stress that this only concerns SOME workplaces)
I, like many foreign workers in Japan, leave my school’s staff-room exactly as my work-day finishes. My fellow teachers officially finish at 16:30, yet many of them will stay much, much longer than that.
The teacher who sits next to me, admitted that she frequently stays in the office until as late as 21:00! When asked about why they stay so late, many of my co-workers say that they have a lot of work to do, and they don’t want to let their students down and that they need to make up the time by working after hours.
And this really is ‘after hours’ work, as it is usually unpaid. That’s right, teachers can work up to, or over, 20 hours of unpaid overtime a week. The reason behind this is mainly down to the vagaries of Japanese culture, specifically, 和, (wa) or ‘harmony’ in the workplace. (1)
The ideal harmonious Japanese work environment is one of peaceful unity and conformity. In this ideal workplace, all workers are friendly, get their work done on time, and most importantly, they work as a team. Team work is so important that if a worker cannot get their work done during their hours, they make up the slack after hours, to avoid letting their co-workers down. If they finish ahead of time, there is also a large amount of pressure not to leave ahead of your own superior, or risk looking like they don’t really care about the team.
So, if a worker were to finish all their assigned work ahead of time, they may find themselves creating ‘busy work’ or stretching out an easy task in order to seem like they are working hard during these extra hours.
The online newspaper, Japan Today, conducted a survey as to why its readers felt that Japanese people worked so many hours. The results were varied, with reasons ranging from company loyalty to low productivity and stretched out tasks to fear of disturbing the status quo, and not doing what is expected of them will result in disciplinary actions. (3)
There are companies in Japan that flagrantly ignore the regulations set in place to protect workers from abuses. These companies have been given the nickname ‘Black Companies’. A survey in December, reported that of the 5,111 companies surveyed, 82%, or 4,189 of them were clearly violating labor laws or engaging in illegal business practices. Workers were often forced to work extra hours by receiving disapproval from co-workers, finding themselves passed over for advancement, or not having their contracts renewed if they were not seen to be devoting themselves to the company. (4)
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare intends to publish the names of the companies in question, if they fail to clean up their acts. Yet, with so many companies in clear violation of the laws, it is unlikely that such a small measure will have an effect. The Ministry will need to implement harsher penalties to the Black Companies if they want to see any changes. This is especially true, with the ever increasing number of young people leaving the workplace, or worse, suffering from 過労死, or karoshi (4)
Karoshi roughly translates as ‘death from overwork’, and it is somewhat ominous that Japanese has a specific word for this tragic circumstance. An extreme example of this would be the Watami Food Service Company, which hired a new female employee, and, according to an investigator, forced her to work more than 140 hours of overtime a month. Tragically, the woman committed suicide after enduring two months of such an oppressive work-environment. (2)
Karoshi is a terrible thing, and is one of the reasons attributed to Japan’s extremely high suicide rate. Lower level employees are de-humanized by the faceless companies and feel alienated, as though they have nothing to live for but work. (1,2)
About a month ago, my school’s Vice-Principal made an announcement during the morning meeting on a Friday. I didn’t catch everything, but I heard a reference to the upcoming three day weekend. Of course, this made me fear for my day off, so I made a bee-line for the nearest English teacher. It turns out that he was actually saying that the staff-room would be locked at 6pm, and would stay locked for the whole weekend. That’s good, right?
The teacher did not think so. He said he had work to do, and by forcing him to leave the office, he would have to work at home. This is by no means a once-off thing. Many companies have introduced similar practices, to try to force people to take time off. This has been met with mixed results, including reports of workers pretending to go home, and then sneaking back into their office to work in the dark. Despite this, and resistance from other areas, these ‘go home’ days, are becoming more common, especially in the wake of the survey.
Of course, this is just like putting a band-aid on a serious wound. Sure it’s a good idea, and it’s a step in the right direction, but a lot more is needed. A lot of people, especially in the survey already mentioned, believe that such a major social change is next to impossible to achieve in Japan. They believe that the strict social hierarchies will prevent lower level employees from being able to take advantage of the new rules and regulations. (3)