The Company Is Father. The Company Is Mother.
November 7, 2014 9:53 PM   Subscribe

In Japan, they say people are born Shinto, get married Christian, and die Buddhist. This of course ignores the real state religion, which is of course Work.
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:40 PM on November 7, 2014 [10 favorites]

That was an interesting read, though I found it hard to breathe when considering the lifestyle of a Japanese salaryman. I can't imagine working long hours like that. Here in Norway we have a 37.5 hour workweek. Research points to that a 30 hour work week would be just as productive, but of course no business will be trying that out soon, for much the same reasons Japanese and American businesses are probably horrified by the idea of the 37.5 hour work week, even though it's been known since Henry Ford's time that keeping the employees on the premises longer does not equate more productivity, rather the other way around.
posted by Harald74 at 12:08 AM on November 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

In my own experience of Japanese professional life I think he's exaggerating a bit. It's like he's actually describing the Japanese work environment of the 80's.
Not saying that Japanese salarymen have it easy now, but the culture have evolved and they're less dedicated to their company's ideal as they used to...
posted by SageLeVoid at 12:29 AM on November 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Your first obligation, in all things, will be to your company. You will work incredibly hard (90+ hour weeks barely even occasion comment) on their behalf. The company can ask you to head to a foreign office for three years without your wife and child beginning tomorrow, and you will be expected to say “Sure thing, when does my flight leave?” or accept that your career advancement is functionally over."

I am now even more glad to work in a European country than I always am when I read about US employment law and practices.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:29 AM on November 8, 2014

It's too bad I'm too old to really pull this off considering I'd be starting from barely at toddler level verbally and completely illiterate in Japanese.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:52 AM on November 8, 2014

Nice piece. I feel like, at least in my experience, he overstates the cost of changing jobs. I have more than one Japanese friend that has moved between jobs as a salaryman. Lots of other stuff really rings true to me, I particularly chuckled at this:

It is occasionally to one’s advantage in business dealings to be a foreigner, largely because you can selectively code-switch between societal expectations for Japanese people and societal expectations for foreigners. I try to avoid abusing this, but it has occasionally been useful to e.g. object vociferously to something while pretending to be unaware that one is causing a scene.

It's true, that the hilariously low expectations Japanese have of Westerners in general can make things very easy for you as a foreigner, in my experience. The slightest, most tokenistic effort can have you regarded like a wondrous talking dog. I know some people rail against this, say that the Japanese will always treat you as Gaijin and regard you as inferior. I dunno, I kind think, but dude, you are a gaijin, no matter what - and I think plenty of Japanese people, at least plenty ofJapanese people I've interacted with, will like and respect you in that context. It's like, you can't stop being a foreigner any more than they can stop being Japanese, you know?

This is not to excuse the often quite jaw-dropping racism and discrimination of all kinds you can routinely encounter, of course. But I guess in a society where roles and form play such a strong part, that discrimination is if not inevitable, certainly encouraged. I also think tales of Japanese racism are sometimes bruited about by people who have no visibility or experiences of the prevalence of racism in Western cultures. It is, functionally speaking, their first experience of racism as a victim in many cases, I think.

Japanese culture fascinates me (without any weird orientalist stuff, I mean I find it genuinely interesting and intellectually stimulating). The wealth of translated material also means that it's much easier for someone with functionally no Japanese, like myself, to engage with it, in a way that I can't with other cultures.
posted by smoke at 2:27 AM on November 8, 2014 [18 favorites]

> the culture have evolved and they're less dedicated to their company's ideal as they used to...

In the US, we have at-will employment law and for many professions advancement is easier by changing employers rather than expecting promotion from within. Every eighteen months, you're on the payroll of different company, but for the duration your commitment and availability to that company is your priority. On the company's part, human resources and your bosses will conduct all discussions with you on the pretext that your employment with them is a lifetime commitment regardless of how high employee turnover is in their industry.

Similarly, I would imagine that in Japan the average salaried professional is more inclined to keep one eye on the employment market than his father was, but he knows he is expected to conduct himself in the workplace as if it is still the 1980s.
posted by at by at 4:29 AM on November 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

Doing Business in Japan.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 5:07 AM on November 8, 2014

A really key thing to note about the first part of the article, about employee life:
"A the local equivalent of a W-2 employee in America. This is roughly 1/3rd of the labor force in Japan, but it has outsized societal impact."

Keep in mind, as he points out, that what he's saying isn't true for everyone, but is overall true. Let's say it's true for, oh, say, 83.3%. So 33% of the labor force are salarymen. And what he says is true for 83.3% of those salarymen.

What that means is that what he's saying is true for 25% of the labor force. If your acquaintances are a random sampling of the work force, you will totally know people in situations like this. But at the same time, it won't be true for most of the people (75%) you know.
posted by Bugbread at 6:03 AM on November 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

The essay is pretty much on the money. My sister-in-law works as a senior manager in local government, and her workload has only increased over the past ten years, while wages for civil servants have been frozen.

My brother-in-law is an executive with the local satellite of a large company, but his work-life balance is much better. However, he was directed to leave everything and run another satellite in a city about 3 hours away be car, so he returned home on weekends. There's actually a name for this - "tanshin-funin" or "bachelor husbands."

His work-life balance is better than my sister-in-law's is, as he can go fishing before work and gets Saturdays off (they live in the country; he chose the company because the satellite is located near nice places to fish).

However the only thing that keeps the family going is grandma - his mother - who runs the household. If not for her, my SIL would have to stay home with the kids.
posted by Nevin at 7:39 AM on November 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Actually bugbread brought up something I was thinking about, too - this is a smaller cohort of workers in the Japanese economy. Not everyone is a white-collar worker in Japan, just like in the States or wherever not everyone works for Apple or IBM.

Construction workers (I've worked construction in Japan and Canada) are not working until 3AM (unless there is a project that says they have to). Their day starts at 8am or so, and continues until 5 or 5:30. They may work on Saturdays.

In Tsuruga there are a ton of engineering-services firms that service the nuclear power plants, and they are typically working defined shifts with the ability to take days off.
posted by Nevin at 7:44 AM on November 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

my sense of the market is that, as an intermediate engineer in his early thirties, I’d probably command somewhere between $30k and $60k. (In Silicon Valley, the going rate would be somewhere between $120k and $160k and increasing rapidly.)

One last comment - a few years ago I worked for a Japanese quasi-governmental agency tasked with improving Japan's external trade. My job was to make connections between video game developers in Japan and Canada.

It was really interesting talking to reps at some of the biggest game companies - they pay developers really, really, really low wages. The employers know it, and don't care. "Crunch time" is also a big thing, with no planning for recovery.

It would be interesting to see the employment practices of Naver or Cyberagent or Rakuten (companies with popular software products and services in Japan).
posted by Nevin at 7:48 AM on November 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

It was bank manager Taro and an older gentleman who introduced himself as the Vice President for Risk Management of the bank. He promptly took over the conversation.

“You have to understand that we’re not one of those banks. We’re not some magical pot of money. Every yen we have is a farmer depositing against a bad harvest or a retiree’s pension, carefully husbanded over a lifetime. That is a sacred trust. We cannot lose their money. The bank has to be appropriately careful about who we lend that money to. Taro here tells me your trustworthy, so that is good. Even trustworthy young men sometimes make poor decisions. I need to know you won’t, so before I give this credit card, I have three questions for you.”

“Will you ever use this credit card to gamble?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. Will you ever use this credit card to buy alcohol?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. Will you ever give this credit card to a woman who is not your wife?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. Think darn hard before giving it to your wife, too. OK, you pass muster. Sign here.”

posted by the hot hot side of randy at 9:52 AM on November 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my time working for the American subsidiary of a Japanese company, I had a Japanese coworker there who was very much on this track, spending 12-14 hour days at the office, etc. He returned to Japan and quit to work as an orderly at a retirement home. On a trip to Japan to the parent company, I went for dinner with him and he was very happy with his decision to bail out of the salaryman lifestyle, besides genuinely liking the work--he felt like he was helping real people rather than paddling in an unending river of spreadsheets.

I left with the impression that he wasn't alone in doing this, and there was a quiet cultural shift going on at our age bracket in Japan where the salaryman career was viewed much more sceptically. His former coworkers at our employer seemed to envy his courage rather than disparage his lack of fortitude or submission. Part of that seemed to be that the younger Japanese felt that their large employers would eventually follow America in doing away with the lifetime employment arrangement, and they didn't want to be caught unawares as the generation who put everything into, say, Toyota, being the ones laid of at 55 an unable to find other work.
posted by fatbird at 9:58 AM on November 8, 2014

Great read. I really liked the movie "Tokyo Sonata" where a salaryman gets laid off and hides it from his family, pretending to go to work everyday.

It's interesting the "social contract" in Japan between employer and employee extends both ways. The employer has a responsibility to take care of you. In the US, we are beholden to our employers; sure, we may hop jobs, but even if we have no intention of doing so, the expectation is that we can be laid off at any time, and along with our income lose our access to medical care. I guess this makes the US economy more "dynamic", but for all the moaning about the "lost decade" in Japan, it's not a horrible place to live. People there generally enjoy a high standard of living, unemployment is low, and there is less inequality than in the US.

Also, there is one aspect of Japanese culture that is much more efficient than its Western equivalent. Paying the bill in restaurants. Just 1) walk to the cashier and 2) pay. As opposed to the West, where you 1) try to get the server's attention 2) ask for the bill 3) wait for bill 4) get bill 5) wait for server to take credit card/make change 6) server takes bill 7) wait for server to bring back card/change 8) leave tip.
posted by pravit at 11:15 AM on November 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

My general advice for Japanese folks trying to make their loved ones happy is “Tell them that, in tech, a lot of the companies you’d want to work for are full of inscrutable foreigners who have insane decision-making processes. Take Google, for example. Chock full of Americans. Man, Americans, right? Anyhow, Google has this crazy notion that you should demonstrate capability through personal projects prior to them hiring you. So really, the startup isn’t a startup, per se, it is an extended interview for the job at Google. After you get hired by Google, of course, you’ll be a salaryman at Google. Despite being chock full of Americans, Google gets salarymen: look how they exercise benign paternalistic control over every aspect of their employees’ lives. Almost as good as Sony, twice the pay!”

(Any Googlers reading this? Howdy! Don’t worry, as an ex-salaryman, I am absolutely sincere in saying that I understand the attraction and also understand why you might object to that phrasing. In my salaryman days, I would have objected to it, too. Seen in the clarity of hindsight, I plead temporary insanity exacerbated by extraordinarily effective social conditioning designed by very, very smart people. If you’re happy, though, good for you. I know genuinely happy salarymen, too, and wouldn’t think of attempting to stamp on their joy even though I have some very pointed observations to make about their organizational culture.)

posted by Sebmojo at 11:22 AM on November 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

left with the impression that he wasn't alone in doing this, and there was a quiet cultural shift going on at our age bracket in Japan where the salaryman career was viewed much more sceptically.

I tend to think so, although I would say the biggest factor is that there is a shift away from the "lifetime employment" model. The jobs just aren't there anymore, so if people are lucky they can figure out a different way to make a living.

But a lot of people cannot and are trapped in short-term, no-benefits contract work. It's a big problem.
posted by Nevin at 1:04 PM on November 8, 2014

Having been an English teacher (at a private junior/senior high school complete with its own university and quasi-religious cult), the "company is life" isn't strictly limited to actual companies. There were no full time teachers at the school that hadn't either graduated from either the high school or the university. Most of the faculty that were married were either married to other teachers, support staff, or former classmates. I worked myself stupid there, averaging sixty to seventy hours a week. The Japanese teachers regularly left school at midnight only to return by six or seven the next morning. Usually seven days a week.

The part of this essay that really worked best for me? The bit about how to hire someone for your startup, and the concept of how fucked you are if you don't fit the corporate idea of a hireable person. For the latter, most universities (not all, but more than a bunch) are playgrounds for kids that worked their asses off in high school, learning how to get into university. Very little useful skills are learned by the large number of students, so that when they graduate, they'll spend six to nine months in training at their corporate job. It's assumed that new employees will be utterly useless, and must be trained in "the company way." The downside of that: if you didn't go through that immediately after college, or lord help you, you went through it for a different company, you're tainted, and you'll almost never get hired by a large company in Japan.

For me, now, not being in a school, or working for a corporation, I'm meeting all kinds of people I never had any kind of contact with. People that stayed overseas too long, and are viewed with suspicion. People that, for whatever reason didn't fit he corporate dream of Japan. People who looked at what was expected of them, and said, "fuck it, I'm going to do something I actually want to do." After fourteen years of working with people where 90-95% of their waking thoughts were about the school or the company! good god I wish I'd quit teaching earlier.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:46 AM on November 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

After 9 yrs in Japan, in a different sector and at a different level than Patrick, I have to disagree with large chunks of what he writes. As said up above by Sanglevoid, there is something here of What It Used to Be Like vs what it actually is now. I think generationally I've seen vast differences in loyalty, expectations of tenure, definition of what constitutes a good job, etc. And having lost dozens of colleagues to start ups, I think Patrick's difficulty in hiring is because everyone wants to go to their startup, not someone else's -- the drive that causes Japanese workers to leave corporate life is not to work for someone else. Also, for god's sake, he's missing the experience of female workers completely and using an old-school trope to compensate.

On the funny government office side, though, I have to concur 100% with the experience, but I always find an element of sadness in it: subtle recognition that in a declining population of the only country that speaks Japanese the relevance of the language is rapidly fading.
posted by Vcholerae at 6:23 PM on November 9, 2014

Interesting article. Yes, a little exaggerated in places and as long as you remember it doesn't apply to everyone, pretty much rings true. I know people who have been on the salaryman treadmill for decades now. I don't see them often and even less now. There is a similar dynamic in government employment, and in most universities. People adjust to it. The systems that have grown around it reinforce it. And, it starts early.

I've seen so many parents not want to send their kids to juku for hours and hours after school. They know the kids should have some time to grow and play. But who are they going to play with? All of their peers are at juku. They'll be alone. Replicate later as a salaryman. What are you going to do with that extra evening or Saturday off if all of your peers are working?

We used to see my niece now and then during elementary school. She disappeared during junior high and high school for intense exam prep, clubs, circles and everything else that is the junior version of salaryman life. Then during university, she would visit fairly often. She took a salaryman type job at a good company almost within sight of our home and I haven't seen her since.

As Ghidorah says, many (most?) universities replicate this system. I've worked at one where the vast majority of the faculty are either graduates of the school itself or of Tokyo University. Those are the only "acceptable" options. As one of the few foreigners, I'm exempt from those requirements. However, I've had many senior faculty members bemoan the monoculture and state clearly that the university needed a steady influx of other experiences. But as with other hiring described in the article, it is very hard to do unless every university opens up a bit more.

That said, they aren't all that way. A friend entered a faculty at a "good university" recently where only one person was from within that university. Most of the professors were hired from less traditional academic backgrounds such a business, professional, or government experience in addition to some university teaching. The only way this could be done was to create an entirely new faculty within the university--the current faculty units would not change and could not be forced to change. Essentially, they did a start-up within the company that is free to hire "misfits." This is happening at a lot of universities in the next two to three years.
posted by Gotanda at 6:38 PM on November 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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