The Working Dead


Picture Credit: Juhan Sonin

This April, Japan instituted a sweeping labor reform. Mandatory overtime is now capped…at 100 hours a month, and companies that breach this regulation can be fined up to $3,000 per instance (peanuts to giant corporate offenders like Panasonic and Dentsu). To try to combat overwork, full-time employees are now obligated to take…five days paid leave a year.


Such reforms seem ridiculously ineffectual in a country where death from overwork is so common enough there’s a word for it: karoshi. “Black companies” (known for grinding, murderous work schedules) number in the hundreds. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, has even published a list of these companies online to publicly shame them into respecting employee health and well-being.


Where work-related stress isn’t causing employee death by stroke or heart failure it often drives them to suicide. Work-related “Chuocides” on the Chuo train line in Tokyo (which has no guard rails) are common enough to elicit little more than exasperated sighs from passengers whose travels are delayed by another “human body incident” alert. The survivors sleep standing up on trains with their hands dangling from plastic hand rings, pass out on streets or platforms, or drink themselves into a stupor after hours of unbroken, slavish tedium.

Aphorisms like “work smart, not hard” never took hold in Japan. Employees, on the whole, across any stratum and within any field, are incessantly surveilled and judged by how busy they seem to be, not by actual productivity. Workers race across offices, shuffle papers purposelessly on desks, and arrive at meetings huffing from non-existent exertion simply to curry favor with superiors or co-workers. Goma-suri, loosely translated as brown-nosing, has none of the negative connotations nor ironic self-awareness it does in the West; indeed, it’s considered positive relationship building and part of the job. And so workplaces are also plagued by inefficiency that feeds the belief for the need for long work hours.

Employees, on the whole, are incessantly surveilled and judged by how busy they seem to be, not by actual productivity.

If an individual wants to change jobs, it’s commonly believed that he or she must stay a minimum of three years in a position (toriaezu san-nen) or risk being seen as an irresponsible lout. Workers are further incentivized to stay in companies because their salaries are pegged to their seniority in a company. Employees begin with a standard basic wage, and receive a raise for each year of service. Changing companies means going back to a low rung of the pay scale and starting to climb all over again. Long-term employees are also the recipients of all the benefits intrinsic to their positions as senpai (respected elders) in a thoroughly hierarchical society.


Add to this entrenched ageism that makes it very hard for someone over 40 to change jobs and applications requiring photos to be attached to resumes (so companies can directly evaluate a candidate based on appearance), and it becomes quite clear the deck is stacked against anyone trying to buck the Japanese employment system.

This relationship between Japanese employers and employees can be traced to the hardnosed work ethic of Japan’s bubble years in the 70s and 80s. But it more closely resembles medieval social structures: feudal lords own a plot of land, and those in their charge pay homage (and literal money) for the right to live on said land, and for protection in the form of mercenaries (samurai). When I asked some Japanese people about historical links to the country’s work culture they responded: “Japan never had a revolution.” The nation’s democratic structures and capitalist economics were laid over a pre-existing system that was never challenged or overthrown from within.

Japan’s employer-employee dynamics resembles medieval social structures.

And so in the modern era, this form of fealty rears its head towards the end of university, when Japanese students are taught to follow a rigid employment system. Shuukatsu, the term for the systematic process by which a student gains employment after finishing university, is nearly impossible to circumnavigate. Each month during their final year of university, students must follow a series of prescribed steps to obtain employment, or flounder. Companies hire into bandwidths of seniority, not roles, regardless of major; after being hired, “freshmen” receive on-the-job training for their role. A History major could land a job as a coder, or a Physics major could be assigned to sales. This experience lays the groundwork for all future expectations regarding employer-employee relationships: employers hold all the cards.


Traditionally, graduates would remain at the same company for 50 or more years until retirement and then collect their pension spending their entire working lives at one company. Lifetime employment might not be the norm any longer – not since Japan’s tech bubble burst in the 90s, breaking the taboo on switching jobs by forcing those laid off to search for new employers. That said, prevailing attitudes regarding permanent employment and company loyalty linger.


This is not to say the face of employment in Japan isn’t changing, but there’s a difference between policies on paper and policies in practice. Flextime, for instance, started being instituted in Japan in 1990. In 2002, though, companies were still claiming it was too tough to implement, and even now flextime remains a distant dream for most.

Picture Credit: Jorge Gonzalez

A software engineer who worked on missile guidance systems for the Ministry of Defense told me about an absurd set of restrictions surrounding his employer’s implementation of an already very limited notion of flextime. His employer stated that employees could schedule their days around core hours, which were 10-5. Then, they instituted mandatory morning meetings at 9. The engineer, who had a newborn child, and who commuted over two hours one-way on multiple trains, decided to invoke his right to flextime and show up at 10. Within several weeks he was invited to a one-on-one, mafia-like meeting in an empty restaurant with his supervisor, where he was lectured for over three hours on company loyalty. He was, frankly, not goma-suriing enough; he was being irresponsible by taking advantage of official flextime policy.


Another person who works in finance reported her salary (an otherwise fixed amount) docked by an hour if she was even one minute late to her desk (physically sitting in her chair). Arrive at her desk at 9:01, and she received pay from 10. This is while trying to scurry her way through a gauntlet of obligatory “good mornings” (which must be conducted face-to-face at the desk of every supervisor). When she raised this point with her direct supervisor, he simply told her to stay later.


These are of course extreme examples, one in a government position, the other in an industry known for its inhumanity. They reveal, however, the mindset of an old guard of employers that is still largely dominant in the Japanese workplace.

Picture Credit: tokyoform

Because of Japanese companies’ reputations for brutally overworking their employees, international talent is often deterred from working in Japan, especially when coupled with the bureaucratic complexities of starting and maintaining a business. Japan’s population is expected to shrink from 127 million to 97 million by 2050, and the government is fully aware of the need to make the country attractive to both skilled and unskilled workers. Hence the easing of restrictions making it extremely difficult for blue-collar workers to enter the country in 2018. Now, selected industries in need of labor have broad access to non-Japanese workers.


This represents one step forward in the evolution of Japan’s labor market, but traditional Japanese systems are still at odds with today’s employment needs (e.g. distance working, consolidation of roles, increased efficiency). On the whole, Japanese companies have done little to change how they operate.

Japanese companies have done little to change how they operate.

Yes, more Japanese people are engaged in part-time work than ever before, in multiple roles or otherwise. There are more women employed than ever before, and there are more freelancers than ever before. In fact, 40% of the adult male workforce in their 30s now engages in “irregular work” of some form. However, they’re seen as bizarre, financially unstable outliers, to the point where only 25% of them are married (compared to 70% of those with conventional corporate positions). Old attitudes regarding traditional employment persist even in the young.


True change, however, rests in the hands of these younger employees, and will likely be initiated from the bottom up, not the top down. Bridging the gap between past and future requires standing up to existing work habits and their intrinsic power dynamics, generationally and culturally. Japan needs a quiet grassroots labor revolt in lieu of the democratic revolution it never had.

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