Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Random Memories #44

This is a continuation of a sequence of stories on working in a Japanese office, an experience that I had over 12 of my 23 years in Japan. Here are parts 1 and 2.

In the previous post, I introduced information about my former company, which I believe was like a lot of little companies in Japan in that it operated as the private fiefdom of the man who ran it. The company survived, in part, on the largess created by Japan's economic boom times, but also on laws and loopholes meant to keep employment levels high and allow companies that were not especially competitive to continue to exist.

Over the years, the number of such companies has slowly decreased as tax codes have been changed and laws less oriented toward keeping such businesses alive, but there are still likely thousands of them all over Japan. I believe, and this is pure speculation, that this is one of the reasons you see tiny shops that occupy a niche of the market, never seem to get more than a handful of customers, but continue to stay in business for decades.

In terms of our company, Mr. O, the president, was essentially the master of his domain. Once the company expanded to the point at which he no longer operated as a salesperson, he spent most of his days meddling in the affairs of whatever section he felt could "benefit" from his attention. For many years, he mainly fiddled in sales because he felt that was an area in which he had expertise.

Indeed, he may have had skills at one point or another in time and some important knowledge to impart. When I first joined the company, the salespeople would gather around a meeting table in his lavish office and he would hold them as his captive audience for hours. As sales continued to tank, in part due to changes in the tax laws that cut out breaks for companies for English training that went beyond the most basic level and in part due to the bursting of the bubble economy, he lost interest in managing the sales people. After all, if he kept instructing them and sales did not improve, then it would mean he failed. It was far easier to blame the sales people than to take responsibility himself.

After the president took his finger out of the sales pie, he turned to our section's efforts in regards to writing textbooks. His English was so-so, and he had no knowledge of how to publish, edit, or write, but this was a product that was not directly related to his expertise and he could get in our way to his heart's content without feeling like he could be blamed.

One of my earliest experiences with this was his thwarting any efforts we made to modernize. When I started at the company, they were using a paste-down method and I wanted to update to using digital publishing. He insisted that the "homemade" look was part of the company's "know how" and I had to keep using a ruler and a special "gum" to create pages that the publisher would take pictures of and convert into printing plates. It was only after the printer refused to do this anymore as they had converted to digital that he magnanimously permitted me to use my own scanner, laptop, and copy of Pagemaker to do the job properly.

When Mr. O wasn't too busy interfering with our jobs, he spent much of his time deciding how to rearrange the office. At least twice a year, he'd pore over elaborately drawn plans and figure out how to move our desks and change our work spaces to suit his whims. There was never any rhyme or reason for this, beyond the fact that the foreign employees always had to be close enough to his office so that he could keep us within sight and earshot so that he could tell us what we did wrong. He also made sure that the foreigners always were seated on the side of the office that had the fewest or no windows and was the hottest in summer and the coldest in winter. If there was an unattractive area for your desk to be placed in, we were placed there.

When he got bored with meddling, rearranging the furniture tended to keep him entertained. Never mind that all of this caused a huge disruption in workflow for everyone else. The Japanese staff gamely came in early, stayed late, or gave up their entire weekend to cooperate with his games of musical chairs.

The president also had a flaw common to many people who are placed in charge and who lack empathy for their subordinates. Every time one tiny thing went wrong, he'd create a new and quite punitive rule. This was bad management, but it helped him deal with his frustration over any little thing going awry.

My shift was 11:00 am to 7:00 pm when I first started working for the company. The last two hours were always occupied by two hours of talking on the phone as part of the correspondence course. The way it worked was that two people were to call in the first quarter hour, then three in the next quarter hour followed by another round of two and then three. Each call was five minutes so every other fifteen minutes was tight and we had to adjust the time as needed if someone called outside of the rigid structure of the schedule block. That is, we'd give someone only four minutes or run a little late into the block with thetwo people that followed.

As one might imagine, this scheduling was tricky at the very end of the day. If three people needed to get through from 6:45 to 7:00 and one was late, we'd run past 7:00 pm or give a very short call. We weren't allowed to give less than three minutes, so someone who called super late just stole our time and there was nothing we could do about that. The second-to-worst ones would call at 6:59 and hold us up for the duration. The worst ones would call at 7:00 on the dot.

Because we didn't want to be leaving late (and not be paid for the time), each teacher would be sitting there watching the digital clock on the phone like a hawk and turn the switch off the second it clicked over to 7:00 pm. One day, a single student called and complained that he had called at 6:59 pm and not gotten an answer. As a result, we were all told that we couldn't turn the phones off until 7:05.

It may seem very petty that we cared so much about the theft of a few minutes here or there, but it's important to keep in mind that the president did not respect our work. It wasn't only that he put us in the darkest, most uncomfortable spot or watched us like a hawk because he clearly mistrusted us, but also a plethora of choices that added up to showing he had zero respect for us.

One example of this could be seen in the way he arranged to buy office treats for tea time one day a week. None of the teachers worked on Mondays and that was the day that he chose to buy ice cream, special beverages, or snacks for all of the office workers. Every Tuesday, we'd come in to find the refrigerator full of the things the staff had chosen not to eat.

Another example of this was the fact that the Japanese staff got to take a tea time break at all. At around 3:30 or 4:00, they'd all head for the kitchen for tea and then sit in a lounge area and read newspapers or chat for about 15-30 minutes while we worked on.

Beyond that was the fact that our concerns were never taken seriously, even when we had a legitimate point. The air conditioning system operated by having a sensor on one half of the unit that managed the temperature control. The president had included the sensor in his enclosed office space and we were on the other side without a sensor. In summer, his office would get super cool in the enclosed space and ours, which was bigger and more open as it had to accommodate more people, would stay hot.

We'd be sitting in summer with hot air blowing on us and it was a constant fight to get the air conditioner set low enough so that we wouldn't be in a well-heated room. The president didn't see this as a practical matter, even as his daughter verified that, yes, the air conditioning was spewing heat. He saw it as a power issue. He wanted the AC set at 26-28 degrees C. (79-82.4 degrees F.) and we needed it set at 23 (73.4) in order not to be blasted with heat of around 29.4 C. or 85 degrees F.

It wasn't an issue of us wanting it colder, but the problem with the mechanical system. The president saw our request as a pissing contest that he was going to win. He felt we should "gaman" (endure) the discomfort because that is what he believed subordinates should do. It took weeks and weeks of suffering before he'd concede that we were experiencing temperatures hotter than those outside on most days. You don't know what hell is like until you're working in a heated room in summer because of the petty need to prove ones power over ones employees. Humane working conditions never entered into his thinking. It was all about status and power.

The president got upset that the foreigners did not have the work ethic of the Japanese, but he treated us like bad dogs that had to be whipped to kept in line. How much company loyalty did that inspire? Beyond the idiosyncratic choices he made that always worked to our disadvantage, there was also the fact that he gave us piddly raises when he gave us raises at all and that he divvied them out based on gender.

My male coworker, who did the basic phone and correction work, got a 10,000 yen raise ($100) a month while I got 2,000 yen ($20) despite my desktop publishing, writing, and editing work on top of the usual work. The differences in our raises were only because I am a woman. His logic was that my coworker being a man meant that he had to support his "family" and that meant his wife, who also had a full-time job so they weren't exactly struggling for their daily bread. The irony was that my husband was studying Japanese full-time and I was the main breadwinner, but the facts absolutely did not interfere with his notions of what was "right".

Beyond all of these issues, Mr. O almost fired me for refusing to work on a day off as well and he had a habit of dismissing every foreign employee after three years of employment regardless of how hard they worked because he preferred to have "fresh faces". I stayed for 12 years largely because my Australian boss convinced him of the pragmatic concerns. He knew they were never going to get someone with my skills for the wages they offered and his workload would have increased greatly without my assistance.

I don't mean to paint Mr. O as entirely bad, though there certainly was little that tended to be "good" about him objectively speaking. There obviously was a reason that I remained for 12 years. Mr. O wasn't any part of it though, but I'll get into that in the next piece. 


  1. With a boss like that, the job must have been golden in other ways for you to stay 12 years.

    My American friend lasted about a month at a company like that. I just feel lucky that my employer is 'cut from a different cloth' so to speak. Same plodding issues, but less passive-aggressive power play.

    1. It did give me something other jobs could not... not because of the company's largess, but because of my ability to find my way to getting something of value. More on that next week!

  2. Wow! Looking forward to the next installment of this! I have also experienced a work environment kind of like this and it makes me appreciate my current one so much more!

  3. Sounds identical to working conditions in South Korea.

  4. Great post. In a way, this petty man and his company are a parable for all of "modern" Japan. His exaggerated pride was based on nothing but myths (his 'know how') - a house of cards held together by temporary affluence not created by creativity, but cunning trickery and lies.
    And as it is the case with Japan, one can only wonder if he and his Japanese employees were taking part in the charades out of pure ignorance, or if they were aware of the ridiculousness of it all but chose to play along in order not to "rock the boat".

    1. You ask very interesting and good questions. I think the employees knew what was going on and were well aware of what was happening. In fact, I will be getting to that as this story goes on. There were clear indications that some people knew and even challenged him a few times when he went too far. They also revealed secrets behind his back, which I forgot to mention, but should get to before I finish this long story.

      Thanks for your comment!


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