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Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2004

THE ZEIT GIST

Enduring life in the Japanese company

You're not alone if you find working for a Japanese 'kaisha' difficult


It's probably just as difficult to find a happily employed Westerner in a Japanese company as it is to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

News photo
After-work socializing, or "tsukiai," usually involving driking, is an integral part of life in the Japanese company.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I have yet to come across a Western worker who has found the Japanese workplace to be comfortable, inspiring, psychologically fulfilling or ultimately rewarding.

They point out the structural rigidity, lack of personal office space per person, the breakdown in communications, the antiquated protocol masquerading as tradition, the general mistreatment of female staff, to name just a few.

The Japanese "kaisha" (company) is just plain yucky.

But to any non-Japanese who has ever felt compelled to voice these feelings, I offer, by way of apology and regret, the reassurance: don't worry, the Japanese feel exactly the same way.

The Japanese view of the kaisha is similar to how President George W. Bush described marriage in his State of the Union address -- an "enduring institution."

Or maybe just an institution for endurance.

My friend Satomi, now working 10 years for the same publishing house in Jimbocho, says every work day is about bearing up: "See all these gray hairs? That's what working for that kaisha has done to me."

Satomi has seriously considered quitting at least 30 times in her career. She bitches endlessly to anyone willing to listen.

But deep down, she knows she'll never leave. Her discomfort with her job has come full circle so that now she's actually (perversely) comfortable.

She's okay with the yuckiness and knows how to cope, yes, much like a marriage.

For the American (or the westernized) this logic is worse than alien, it's defeatist. The Westernized want things to improve, to work. They cannot comprehend the reason why changes and adjustments so clearly for the better, take such a long time in coming or don't come at all.

Why do things take such time in a Japanese company? Why does management always sidestep the most important issues and go off (seemingly arbitrarily) on another tangent?

Why, why, why?

The Japanese are also beating their heads on that gray, cold concrete wall but there's a deep-seated resignation passed down through the generations, that the individual can never win against the kaisha and besides the individual never counted in the first place.

What's more important is that the institution will survive, since it's the institution that's directly plugged into the Japanese economy: the closest thing we have to a national identity. So they beat their heads but they'll also go about doing business as usual.

And whatever changes are brought about come at the slow, labored pace of a snail that has suffered a stroke.

The fact is, the Japanese often look for job satisfaction in ways that have no direct connections with the job itself.

For example, there is the enormous emphasis on "douki" (colleagues who had entered the company in the same year). A douki is a cross between sibling and comrade -- the unwritten agreement is that all douki will stick together, whatever happens.

They work together, organize drinking parties, invite each other to their weddings, keep in touch and communicate for decades, often until retirement.

Never mind that some of your douki can be royal pains in the lower extremities. The mere fact that you and these people all became employees at the same time enhances affection and excuses the bumps. It's the shared memories you see, of having cut your teeth at the same time.

Other things they look forward to in the workday are things like "ocha" (tea or coffee break) in the mornings, often immediately after clocking into work.

The Japanese office may claim to start business at 9 a.m. sharp but in actuality, no one really feels like work until 10 or 10:30.

First, they observe the ritual of going off to the local coffee shop for a quick "mooningu" (morning breakfast service) and reading the paper, smoking and chatting, before moseying back to the office.

This deliberate procrastination slows up the workday, which is largely the reason for people having to linger around until 8 or 9 p.m. before they get the resolve to board the train for home.

One American lawyer working for a Japanese "shosha" (trading house) was so incensed at what she saw as an unnecessary frittering away of time, that she circulated an elaborate office memo that exhorted people to start at 9, be as productive as possible during the day and finish by 6.

It was politely acknowledged but ultimately ignored.

"It's ridiculous," she says. "Much of the famed 13-hour workdays can be remedied if only people will change their work habits, which they simply refuse to do."

She also resented that much of office communications and relationships depended on informal camaraderie fostered outside the workplace (i.e., pubs and cafes): "it's unfair to those who don't particularly want that camaraderie but willing to be dedicated professionals inside the office."

The fact is, however, that the Japanese feel the same. Many profess to hate the "tsukiai" (being a sport by going out) that are part and parcel of any office life and say they would much rather go home early or cultivate friendships outside the kaisha.

In fact, post-war Japanese fiction have always been peopled by individuals who want to do things differently, and pine to be evaluated for individual merits and abilities rather than a willingness to accompany impromptu office gatherings. Reality dictates otherwise.

Tsukiai remains the unwritten imperative, even to the extent that people will stay for "tsukiai zangyo" (being a sport by working overtime because others are doing it), a meaningless but enduring kaisha custom, even in the face of massive restructuring and realignment in the effort to survive the recession.

The American lawyer says that she takes comfort in the thought that when her 2-year stint is over, she can leave and return to the States. Indeed.

We, on the other hand, have to stick around.



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