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Imagining civil servants who actually serve

by Philip Brasor

Japanese workers have a reputation for diligence but, as with all cultural generalizations, the reality is more complicated. Ever wonder why public service is the most coveted line of work for new university graduates? Is it because they actually want to serve the public, or because the pay is relatively high and the job guaranteed for life?

Even if the answer to the latter is “yes,” that doesn’t mean bureaucrats can’t also be hard workers. However, unlike private-sector employees who have to prove themselves on a daily basis, especially now that “lifetime employment” is but a fond memory, public-sector employees can work at their own pace and go home promptly at 5 p.m.

For a more instructive contrast, check out the new Nippon TV drama “Dandarin” (Wednesday, 10 p.m.), which is set in the West Tokyo branch of the Labor Standards Bureau, whose mission is to enforce employment regulations. The series points out an interesting paradox through the actions of its protagonist, a preternaturally earnest transferee named Rin Danda (Yuko Takeuchi), who shows up at the office for her first day of work and immediately talks about inspecting a construction site that is clearly in violation of safety rules.

Her new colleagues are taken aback. Inspect a workplace? Without talking about it beforehand, making a plan and calling the company to make an appointment? “We’re not here to cause trouble,” the bureau chief (Shiro Sano) says nervously. However, that’s exactly what the Labor Standards Bureau is supposed to do — make trouble for employers who exploit workers and cut safety corners.

As a comedy, “Dandarin” not only pokes fun at bureaucratic privilege, it wags its finger at Japan’s storied management style, which — in the context of the comic on which it’s based — succeeds on the backs of put-upon employees. The first episode focused on a salesman of a housing company who has to fulfill a daily quota he can never meet within the eight hours he’s paid for, and so he works overtime but doesn’t report the extra hours because it’s tacitly understood he should achieve his target within the normal work day. After he accidentally runs into Danda (motor scooter, blind alley), she decides to go after the president of his company, but he begs her not to, since it took him months to find this job. The president is a cheap, imperious jerk, and when he finds out the salesman has talked to a government official, he forces him to apologize in front of the whole company.

Danda is undeterred, but when she tells colleagues of her plan, everybody starts hyperventilating, until she points out in dry legalese that this is what their work entails. In fact, they have the power to arrest any employer who violates the labor code. Although this was something they knew, it was not something they took seriously.

At first the staff are put off by Danda’s by-the-book fastidiousness because, as the section chief (Kazuki Kitamura) puts it, “Why should we do more work than we have to?” Danda’s supervisor (Tori Matsuzaka) rationalizes their inaction by saying “Every company does that,” but when the reality is exposed to the light of day, he is forced to ponder what it actually means.

This is the show’s irresistible hook: the age-old conflict between what’s right and what’s accepted. On her way to work one day, Danda sees a help-wanted ad in the window of a coffee shop seeking a “cute, young waitress.” She marches in and informs the proprietor that he cannot discriminate in terms of age or gender when hiring. The next day the ad has been changed accordingly, though as the section chief says, “The result will be the same,” meaning the owner will hire a young woman in the end. To him, it’s useless to make an effort on such trifling matters, but Danda doesn’t differentiate.

The main reason labor regulations aren’t followed is that most business people don’t know any better. If you point it out to them you’ve won half the battle, but her co-workers can’t be bothered.

Inevitably, her persistence pays off. When she decides to arrest the president of the housing company on her own, the others, shamed by her example, grudgingly agree to help. Then it is they who encounter resistance — from police and prosecutors (because, while bureaucrats can arrest violators, they still need a place to put them) — and feel the anger of righteousness rise in their chests.

In another episode, Danda wants to bust the owner of a restaurant chain for making store managers work overtime with no pay, based on the legal excuse that management isn’t subject to labor laws. Danda decides to carry out “reconnaissance” in the middle of the night to find out if the managers actually have “decision-making powers.” If they don’t, then they are managers “in name only” and thus are deemed regular employees. Danda’s colleagues themselves don’t want to work overtime (the law doesn’t apply to bureaucrats) in order to carry out the reconnaissance but once they do, they again become fired up with purpose.

Unlike most TV dramas, “Dandarin” has the added value of supplying information that’s instructive, especially now that the government is planning special economic zones with relaxed labor laws. It’s why the lead character’s attitude is so important. Danda wears severe suits and moves in straight lines toward her goals. Her behavioral tics are comically extreme. When she meets resistance, her face becomes rigid and she growls like a cornered cat. Confronted with an emotional response, she refuses to make eye contact with her interlocutor because it might undermine her resolve. It’s obvious she was transferred because of a scandal at her last assignment, and she occasionally receives anonymous death threats on her cellphone.

Though the manga-like opening credit sequence depicts her as a superhero, she’s a civil servant through and through. It’s just that she’s a civil servant who actually serves.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Hmm, almost sounds interesting enough to make me want to turn the TV on.

  • Akira Kurebayashi

    ‘Public-sector
    employees can work at their own pace and go home promptly at 5 p.m’ – is that so? In that case, some of my friends, who work until the last train on weekdays and frequently work on Saturday as well, don’t belong to something called ministry. I always can’t help but sympathize with my friends working as civil servants who are always criticized as a whole being called sloths.