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Living outside the box

by Janet Ashby

The days of Japan as the No. 1 business model for the world are long gone, but a new and perhaps more interesting model combining Japanese and Western elements seems to be developing. Unfortunately, the transition from a system based on lifelong employment, seniority and unthinking loyalty to one’s company to one with more mobility, meritocracy and a “cooler” work ethic is, according to recent media reports, being achieved at terrible human cost.

A feature article in the Yomiuri Weekly (July 7), for example, reports a rise in restructuring and overwork-related suicides from the late 1990s. One large trading company has lost eight workers to suspected suicide over the past two years from among staff posted overseas. Trading companies have been particularly hard hit as the Internet steals their middleman role. Those in the field often endure micromanaging from the main office in Tokyo.

Employees in many other Japanese companies as well suffer from increased workloads and responsibilities as the number of workers is reduced through restructuring and limited new hiring, while the amount of work to be done remains the same.

The limited safety net and rising unemployment rate compel people to work longer hours for fear of losing their jobs. The introduction of merit-based pay and promotion brings increased pressure for results and turns colleagues into rivals. Government efforts to control overwork remain ineffectual or even counterproductive.

Indeed, Aera (June 10) reports that new guidelines requiring companies to keep better overtime records have instead been leading to unpaid “voluntary” overtime work.

One worker at a large Tokyo bank tells of a sudden meeting about new overtime rules: overtime only until 8 p.m.; notify a superior by 5 to work until 10; lights off at 10. The meeting left the heavy hint that the office would be open from 5 a.m. So now, instead of working until the last train at night, she gets up at 4:30 to take the first train and is often at work by 6 a.m.

Another worker reveals that his company has the lights turned off at 8 p.m., and everyone dutifully signs out and leaves the office. But they come back 10 minutes later and turn on the lights for “voluntary” overtime!

While deploring the excesses and health dangers of such overwork, these articles do not fundamentally question such devotion or sense of duty placing work above all else. However, a collection of articles in Chuo Koron (July) and a book by Yoji Genda, “Shigoto no naka no aimai na fuan” (The Vague Anxiety in the Work World; Chuo Koron Sha), envisage changing values and a changing the position of work in life.

In his book, Genda focuses on the plight of younger workers in their 20s and 30s, trying to give them the necessary information to overcome their “vague anxiety,” enabling them to redefine their relationship to work and create their own work strategy. Although the media primarily reports the pressures of restructuring on older workers and criticizes the poor work ethic of young “freeters” (temporary workers) and “parasite singles” (workers still living with their parents), Genda says it is the jobs of older permanent employees that are being preserved at the cost of the younger generation of workers. The glut of legally protected older workers won’t ease until the retirement of the baby boom generation in 2010, meaning that limited hiring of young people as permanent employees, restricted advancement chances and reduced on-the-job training will continue for several more years.

He recommends setting one’s own personal goals, developing a network of friends and acquaintances and becoming one’s own boss: One should not count on being taken care of by the company, even if one does not actually go out and found one’s own small business.

Genda also contributes an article to the Chuo Koron special section on the changing world of work and the emergence of new sources of happiness and meaning in life. He foresees the coming collapse of Japan’s homogenous society dominated by older males, which has become increasingly rigid and stagnant in its thinking, resembling graying areas of the countryside lacking young blood.

He sees change coming from the young, from women and from “free agents” — contract or other nonpermanent employees who come together to work on a particular project and then disperse. Such free agents have more satisfaction in their work and can achieve a better balance of work, family and leisure activities.

Reforming and revitalizing Japan’s homogeneous society will require re-examining the “common sense” of how things have been done until now, removing workplace barriers to the advancement of women and replacing nonverbal communication styles with greater transparency of process.

Genda feels people will have to learn to take more responsibility for their own lives, graduating from an “omakase” culture in which they simply followed the rules and moved in lockstep with the rest of society.

Another article in Chuo Koron is a personal account by Kazuhiro Fujihara of how he stopped being a zealous company man and came to think about what he really wanted out of life. Called the White Cyborg by his work colleagues, he had top sales at Recruit two years in a row and became a section chief at 27. Living the high life, he always carried 150,000 yen in his wallet so as not to be caught short at the exclusive golf courses and Ginza bars he frequented.

Two years later he was promoted again, but his body failed him and illness forced him to slow down. The Recruit scandal shook his identification with the company, as did involvement in a Recruit publishing venture; writers were unimpressed by his title, and he was forced to realize the gaps in his education and reading.

The final blow to his life as an organization man was time spent in France. The French taught him that one could enjoy life without a lot of money. One day in Paris he was shocked by his 5-year-old son’s imitating him after he took a phone call at home from Recruit. He became frightened at the prospect that his son might become a company man like himself.

Fujihara acknowledges that trying something new involves risk, but there is no gain without risk; people can change if they have the will to change.