While in California recently, I saw a reality program called “Undercover Boss,” in which the president of a company disguises himself as a new hire and works beside his frontline employees. The boss thus comes to appreciate how important those people are to the success of his business. At the end of the segment, the president, having revealed himself to his astounded charges, was weeping and giving each person he worked with a raise or a promotion.
Though I don’t question the show’s integrity, its effects are purely sentimental, and I doubt it will make any difference in the prevailing corporate attitude, which increasingly sets the bottom line above the people at the bottom. In America right now, corporate profits are higher than ever, and so is unemployment.
Not long after, I saw a similar reality show on NHK called “Shigoto Hakken-den.” The title is a play on words that mixes a famous samurai legend with a term commonly used to describe temporary workers. A famous person toils in a specific occupation for a limited period and learns that jobs we take for granted require skill and experience. The manifest aim of “Undercover Boss” is that a worker’s value is recognized and then properly rewarded. In “Shigoto Hakken-den,” no reward is expected. Recognition is enough.
The particular program I saw focused on express delivery service, a line of work that has recently become the new symbol of the storied Japanese work ethic. Boxer Daisuke Naito tries his hand at being a driver for Yamato Transport, the company that pioneered overnight delivery in Japan back in 1976.
Naito became a champion rather late in life, so unlike a lot of the celebrity participants on “Shigoto Hakken-den,” he has experience in the labor market, and at one point says that, since he is retiring soon, maybe he will apply for a full-time job at Yamato.
He starts off confidently. “It looks easy,” he tells the camera after putting on the Yamato uniform. “You just need experience.” However, during his first day of on-the-job training, he discovers that his responsibility covers more than shlepping packages and finding parking spaces. He’s also required to drum up new business. As a TV personality, especially on quiz shows, Naito tends to play the slow-witted softie, and has trouble making coherent sales pitches for Yamato services. “You have to smile when you talk to customers,” his training supervisor tells him, as if he were explaining how to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Despite Naito’s lack of marketing chops, he “passes” the evaluation and is transferred to Hong Kong, which Yamato is using as an entry point into the Chinese market. He speaks not a word of Cantonese and only a few words of English, but his job is to help the local staff acquire Japanese driver protocols. Like “Undercover Boss,” this episode of “Shigoto Hakken-den” ends in tears and hugs, but they are shared on a horizontal rather than a vertical basis. At first, Naito has trouble connecting with his trainee, Steven, who bristles at the directive to smile and bow in the Japanese manner. However, when he makes his first sale of refrigerated services after Naito prods him to do some extracurricular pitch work in an outdoor food market, he’s a convert.
Throughout the show, much is made of Yamato’s “attention to detail,” a consideration, it’s implied, that is peculiar to Japanese service industries. It’s what Steven lacks until his epiphany in the outdoor market, and the main thrust of the show. Ten years ago, NHK wouldn’t have been caught dead allowing a company to shill for itself as Yamato does here, but the implication is that what Yamato is doing is good for Japan’s image overseas.
NHK, however, didn’t play up another prominent promotional aspect of Japanese delivery services, which is that drivers are hot. Last week, Aera ran an article about Yamato’s main rival, Sagawa, which focused on how sexy the company’s deliverymen are. Three specimens are presented, all described as “fresh” and athletic. The woman reporter herself confessed to having a “crush” on Sagawa drivers, who always seem to be “running effortlessly” to the next pickup/delivery. This image of the hustling employee is played up in advertising, especially Yamato’s, which features the members of the aging boy band Tokio dressed in Yamato uniforms and dashing from one place to another.
The article explains that this attitude is instilled through intense training and a very strict manual. According to a supervisor, “everybody on the street” is a potential customer, so Sagawa drivers always have their game on, whether it’s helping elderly people cross the road or flirting with receptionists.
The attention to detail in this case is a matter of good corporate sense, since the stakes are pretty high. Distribution is one of the few growth industries, owing to the development of Internet shopping and other specialty retail operations. Competition is fierce, and at the moment, Yamato and Sagawa dominate — even Japan Post is struggling to catch up in the wake of privatization. Though starting pay is ¥180,000 a month or less, drivers who cultivate lucrative routes and work long hours can earn good money.
But the attractions of the job seem to go beyond material benefits, even to the type of person who 15 years ago might have looked down his nose at this sort of blue collar work. One driver confessed on his blog that he had previously worked for a bank but quit because he “was never very good at numbers” and thought being a deliveryman looked “fun.”
In a job environment where even bank positions don’t guarantee long-term security, “fun” means more than it used to. Nevertheless, it represents a mindset that may be as peculiar to Japan as the famous attention to detail. Weeks after Naito left Hong Kong, Steven was shown an old video of him boxing and he misunderstood, thinking Naito had quit Yamato to pursue his dream of pugilistic glory. That’s usually the way it works, right?