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Japan’s salarymen are bored to tears

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Special To The Japan Times

It seems odd to be talking about boredom in such interesting times. Are you bored? Almost certainly you are, if Spa! magazine’s insights are reliable. Polling 2,052 mid-career (age 35-45), moderately prosperous (annual income ¥4 million-¥6 million) businessmen (sic, men only), it found no fewer than 85 percent confessing to being bored at work.

Eighty-five percent! They should form a political party and run for office. They’d soon have Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the nation’s optimist-in-chief (“Japan is back”), on the defensive. With numbers like that, a Boredom Party would pose a challenge the moribund official opposition can scarcely hope to.

Boredom is corrosive. Allowed to fester, it becomes “the gateway to depression,” psychologist Satoshi Yoshino tells Spa!. The image that springs to mind is of people with nothing to do, but Japanese company employees are among the busiest and hardest-working on Earth — in fact, “being too busy” is the cause most often adduced by Spa!’s bored respondents (35.8 percent), outranking even “dull routine tasks” (32.7 percent). Being busy, even “too busy,” with satisfying work can be exhausting but is hardly boring. Inference: the work is unsatisfying.

For 85 percent of the working population? Is that credible?

It seems it is. A report in last weekend’s New York Times, titled “Why you hate work,” confirms Spa! is on to something. The Times cites a Gallup survey showing “just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work” — which is pretty good against a worldwide average of 13 percent, a figure roughly corresponding to Spa!’s 15 percent who are not bored.

The anomalies are obvious. Nowhere, ever, has the developed world’s workforce been as educated, as skilled, as empowered as the present one. Challenges and opportunities abound — the problems we face and the means at hand to solve them, heightened and sharpened beyond anything previous generations could have imagined. Where is there room for boredom?

Let’s ask “Mr. Kojima,” one of Spa!’s respondents. He’s 31 — too young for burnout, you’d think, and yet his work for a mobile service company has left him a living witness to the truth of Yoshino’s chilling observation. Life for him is a round of “useless meetings, useless reports.” He’s head of a department newly created as a pigeon-hole for superfluous employees.

“The company hired too many people. My job is to fabricate work for them to do. One day on the train to work,” he says, “I suddenly started crying. I couldn’t stop.” Diagnosed with depression, he is now on recuperative leave, with plenty of time to meditate on which is worse — having nothing to do; or having plenty to do, most of it nonsense.

Then there’s “Mr. Tanaka,” 35 and working for a toy maker. Middle age, middle management. Sales. “When I first started,” he says, “just after graduation, I kept failing to land contracts. But I had goals. I was happy. But by the time I reached 30 I was already used to the work” — and bored. A turning point came when he presented his boss with a new sales strategy he had devised. The response was cold: “He ignored it. Not only that, he told me off: ‘Just take your orders from me and follow company policy, if you don’t mind.'”

What does an intelligent adult do, faced with a stone wall? Tanaka rechanneled his energy from office work to office sex, which (though he’s married with children) became, he admits, an addiction that’s with him still. He’s going nowhere and knows it. “There’s no escape,” he sighs, “none at all.”

Some men have thought otherwise. You see a cross-section of them in the tent city lining the Tama River in Tokyo’s Ota Ward. Not all the homeless are refugees from white-collar workaday boredom, but some are. There really are times when it seems better to be penniless and free than flush and fettered. But the relief tends to be short-lived.

“Until a few years ago,” says a man in his 40s, “I worked for an appliance maker, doing the same job day after day, thinking to myself, ‘Is this what I’m living for?’ Now I spend my days scavenging cans and scrap metal to sell to recyclers. It’s pretty much the same thing — except this is harder, and what if I get sick? What do I do then?”

Yoshino, the psychologist, observes: “At one time people had clear personal goals — ‘I’ll buy an expensive new car!’ and so on. Work was boring, but here was the reward. Today, people in their 30s and 40s have been glutted all their lives with material goods, and besides, it seems now that however hard you work your salary doesn’t go up. With no clear material goals to pursue, workers are demanding a degree of psychological satisfaction from their jobs.”

Will they find it? Is it there to be found? How much of the work necessary to sustain civilization, society and the economy furnishes it?

“Boredom sets in easily in modern society,” philosopher Koichiro Kokubu tells Spa!. Once upon a time, he says, workers were craftsmen who made finished products. Nineteenth- and 20th-century mechanization turned them (us) into disposable cogs in a vast machine. Karl Marx said much the same thing. His solution was revolution — which, when it came, proved no solution at all.

We must, it seems, be satisfied with small victories and intermittent satisfactions. An interesting difference between the articles in Spa! and The New York Times is that while Spa! stresses how you can solve your predicament, the Times’ focus is on how employers ought to treat their employees better — less for moral reasons than because employees not stripped of their elementary human dignity are more productive.

How can you solve your predicament? Yoshino makes two suggestions. One is to concentrate on the big picture. If assigned to make photocopies, for example, instead of resenting the dullness of the chore, note the contents of the documents and get to know what’s going on in the company.

The second is an old standby: go drinking with colleagues after work from time to time and bitch about the system. It won’t change anything, but it will ease stress, deepen insights and, incidentally, remind you of something too easily forgotten: if the system were perfect we’d have nothing to complain about, and where would we be then? What would we talk about over our drinks? How happy we are?

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