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Japan’s salarymen are bored to tears

by Michael Hoffman

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?

  • GBR48

    Regardless of your job, life is far too short and far too precious to waste being bored.

    That said, the nature of Japanese employment may cause this to be a particularly insidious problem for salarymen (nobody appears to have asked the Office Ladies). Although work is rarely fun for anyone, as in most things, Japan does seem to have its own rather unique issues here. You’d be hard put to be paid a wage in the west to spend your day finding things for surplus employees to do. Such peculiarly Japanese circumstances may be about to change.

    Abenomics increasingly feels like a reworked Japanisation of 80s Thatcherism. If it gains momentum and doesn’t succumb to specifically Japanese obstacles, and if he can keep a lid on the militants, Abe may be able to run with it for the next decade. That might promote some fairly radical changes to some aspects of life in Japan, such as employment, in a nation where ‘radical’ and ‘change’ are rarely paired together in a sentence.

    Part of the charm of Japan is the high level of service-there is always someone on hand to assist you. Combined with traditional employment practices, a Western economist would look at many Japanese companies and see huge levels of overstaffing. Thatcherism was marked by the cutting of costs, and by mergers followed by extensive asset-stripping. In both cases, staff numbers were reduced to increase profitability.

    Boring employment may soon be replaced by the ‘excitement’ of rounds of staff cuts and then the fight to make ends meet whilst unemployed.

    Anyone with time to kill might want to consider increasing their skills-base, opening up an e-store on Rakuten or eBay or even starting their own real-world business.

    Economists dislike stability. They see it as stagnation. Given half a chance, most would attempt to inject a degree of dynamism into a relatively stable economy. They do not always do this responsibly or with due consideration for the consequences. As the numbers start to change on their screens, they see opportunities for growth and the acquisition of wealth, if only for some. They tend not to bother very much with the people – employees, their families – whose lives will be affected as the economy starts to buck and writhe, creating winners and losers.

    If change is coming to the Japanese economy, it will affect everyone, and far more than a couple of percent on the price of things.

    Things may be about to get ‘interesting’.

    • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

      I can only dream about staff cuts.

      Oh, how wonderful that kick to the bum would be to start people off on making their own businesses and improving their lives.

      Or collecting welfare checks.

      • GBR48

        Certain aspects of Japanese corporate life desperately need reform, but politicians and economists are rarely a force for good. Their schemes usually cause considerable collateral damage. Thatcherism was brutal and often socially toxic. Be careful what you wish for.

    • http://www.sunsetreflector.blogspot.com WufanGohan

      Jobs that support connections and face over innovations are hardly most exciting, and much of Japan’s peculiarities came from the spirit of “taking care of your own”. The company was like their parents, an extended family, where they meet when their children are interviewed upon university graduation. That should help explain the job-forever culture they had, and the inactive companies still in existence there.

      Keeping the ball up in the air. It is a unique art form, more elaborate and long-term committal than the usual Asian culture of going around work instead of getting work done. All these man-made things, and Western ideas, if not demolished, they must be handled in a different way.

      They can play some video games, form a band, do street painting et cetera. They don’t really have to look for money when they bore themselves to tears. Unlike the mollycoddled West with its laughable unemployment insurance and reserve-consuming welfare that others find puzzling and strange of course they can’t surf and watch the sea when they are unemployed unlike you parasites. You’re probably in the oriental land to haunt and parasite off them too hahaha you’re so fat!

      And yeah, one nice thing about their service industries is they take customers – even foreigners at times – as gods. Whatever it is, when the new powers of the East rises and the West declines I hope that even after Japan is finally globalised upon re-evaluation and acceptance its people would retain some of these down-to-earth values they have held closely to.

      • GBR48

        I wasn’t advocating Thatcherism for Japan, particularly after having lived through it in the UK. I was merely pointing out that should the Abe administration take a Thatcherite line, there may be changes ahead that would impact upon the nature of Japanese employment.

        All civilised nations operate welfare support systems for those who are sick, unemployed or old to avoid the sort of squalor, poverty, disease, vulnerability, exploitation and juvenile malnutrition that you might find condemned in a Dickens novel. The burden of this is always shared between the state and employers. In Japan large corporations shoulder more of the costs through the employment of inessential staff as part of the ‘family’, than in the West.

        The down-side of this, as covered in the article, is that we spend a large proportion of our short lives in jobs, and spending a great deal of this time paper-shuffling, doing things that we know to be pointless, merely to keep up appearances, is psychologically damaging. Extra-marital office sex is probably not the most beneficial way of dealing with this in the long term, as it usually ends badly. The ‘keeping up of appearances’ can also have more serious consequences, as any irregularities, fraud or criminality is quietly shuffled under the carpet.

        Maybe it is time for Japanese corporates with ‘excess’ employees to allow some of them to work on sponsored community projects for periods of time, on a rota. Good for the community and good for the staff.

        All modern Western governments make a point of reducing welfare spending whenever they can, and those who have to live on it, find it increasingly difficult, particularly as costs rise. In a more dynamic, less stable economy, government cuts of this nature will bite hard in Japan.

        It is simply not the case that there is an ‘easy life on welfare’ available to everyone in the West. It’s an urban myth that stems mostly from political propaganda rolled out (in the UK) via scare stories in the heavily politicised (and wholly unreliable) British press, particularly the tabloids, who mostly lean to the right and run stories intended to support their favoured political agenda.

        And for what it’s worth: when I’m in Japan I’m spending my own (Western) money, to the benefit of the Japanese balance of payments. And I’m not overweight.

        Neither the West nor the East operate entirely successful, humane or honest systems of governance. Perhaps if they were to learn from each others mistakes, they might both improve. Politicians being politicians, globally, and greed being universal, I rather doubt that they will.

      • Stephen Kent

        “Maybe it is time for Japanese corporates with ‘excess’ employees to allow some of them to work on sponsored community projects for periods of time, on a rota. Good for the community and good for the staff.” – can I just say I think that’s a great idea. Obviously it would be shot down before it even got off the ground as it wouldn’t produce any ‘wealth’ for shareholders though.

      • GBR48

        It would offer a relatively cheap form of corporate advertising, which has real monetary value. Some of the global corporates that are based in Japan spend more than $1bn per year on advertising. Spending some of that money on projects with long-lasting community value may do more for a brand image than paying a Hollywood star millions to appear in a TV commercial.

        It is easy to spend a lot of money on TV campaigns and then to have the value of those adverts and brand goodwill erased by one corporate gaff. That is less likely to happen if there are on-going, visible examples of corporates’ ‘good works’ in local communities. Playgrounds and youth facilities that staff help to build and run, urban gardens sponsored and created by local or national companies, and some help with the shopping – or just time spent – with elderly people who live alone, by willing members of staff.

        One corporate uniform for the office, one corporate uniform for outreach days.

    • http://www.sunsetreflector.blogspot.com WufanGohan

      Jobs that support connections and face over innovations are hardly most exciting, and much of Japan’s peculiarities came from the spirit of “taking care of your own”. The company was like their parents, an extended family, where they meet when their children are interviewed upon university graduation. That should help explain the job-forever culture they had, and the inactive companies still in existence there.

      Keeping the ball up in the air. It is a unique art form that is more elaborate and long-term committal than the usual Asian culture of going around work instead of getting work done. All these man-made things, and Western ideas, if not demolished, must be handled in a different way.

      They can play some video games, form a band, do street painting et cetera. They don’t really have to look for money when they bore themselves to tears. Unlike the mollycoddled West with its laughable unemployment insurance and reserve-consuming welfare that others find puzzling and strange of course they can’t surf and watch the sea when they are unemployed like you parasites. You’re probably in the oriental land to haunt and parasite off them too hahaha you’re so fat!

      And yeah, one nice thing about their service industries is they take customers – even foreigners at times – as gods. Whatever it is, when the new powers of the East rises and the West declines I hope that even after Japan is finally globalised upon re-evaluation and acceptance its people would retain some of these down-to-earth values they have held closely to.

      • Jeffrey

        “. . . Unlike the mollycoddled West with its laughable unemployment insurance and reserve-consuming welfare . . .”

        Hate much?

        The U.S. spends more money annually on the production of military goods that, in many cases, not even the particular branch of service wants, than it does in a decade of anything but generous unemployment or welfare payments we have.

  • Stephen Kent

    As is always the case when discussing work in Japan, it’s essential to cut through the abundant euphemism. “Hard working” should always be read as “culturally bound to remain in one’s place of work for an unnecessarily excessive amount of time” and “too busy” as something like “performing unnecessary tasks to appear diligent and hard working as this is regarded as a sign of success and respectability by society” (I vividly remember watching two celebrities on TV a while ago complementing each other on how busy they both were).

    Given that the need for human labour to sustain material living conditions has declined greatly over the last half century due to automation and advances in productivity, it is unsurprising that such a large number of people feel their work is unsatisfying since there is no need for them to be there. The concept of work is now very much an ideology rather than a necessity, and Japan, being going to the extremes it tends to, illustrates that very nicely for us I feel. People have to stay at their office to do menial work to gain the right to receive a reasonable claim onthe economic surplus. All the while, the real problems (wealth concentration, the environment, government accountability, etc.) remain under-addressed because people are too “busy” to tackle them, or even realise what they are most of the time.

    The “work” done by most people has very little relation to their immediate environment, so no matter how “busy” they are they rarely see any changes or improvements. I hope that in the future the definition of work will once again come to reflect honestly doing what needs to be done to advance living conditions and provide stability. People will then start to feel satisfaction in what they do, in my humble opinion.

  • Steve Jackman

    Japanese work culture is still stuck somewhere in the middle of the 20th century.

    In Japan, managers still think that if someone on their staff seems to be enjoying his work, he is either not serious about his work or is not working hard enough. In other words, Japanese work ethic dictates that one should always appear to look overworked, stressed, sleep deprived, and be generally in a dour mood in order to be considered a good worker. The thinking is, if I am over my head and suffering at work, why should I let anyone else enjoy their work?

    It is well known that Japanese managers think that the person who spends the most hours at work is the best worker, never mind, that he is also usually the least productive worker. What may not be as well known is that managers still evaluate their workers in Japan based on the quantity, and not the quality of their work. So, a fifty page report lacking substance and full of incoherent babbling is considered by Japanese managers to be better than a much higher quality, focused and concisely written twenty page report.

    This Japanese way of thinking about work is in total contrast to other developed countries, especially the U.S, where companies have learned to empower their employees, take measures to improve staff morale and to generally try to make work more enjoyable and fulfilling for their workers.

  • hvacnews

    There`s plenty of work to be done, but with leaders without vision the opportunites drip through their hands like water. In the meantime their nation gets assimilated with second rate Frozen water from a nation that makes and forces its opportunities.

  • http://www.sunsetreflector.blogspot.com WufanGohan

    I asked a Japanese associate recently if mutitasking exists in Japanese labour forces and he looked confused and to my approval, said ‘no’.

    • Jeffrey

      As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as “multi-tasking.” Having a few things going on at the same time just means that you are putting one thing down to pick up another.

  • http://www.sunsetreflector.blogspot.com WufanGohan

    Michael Huffandpuffboy is just a racist white ghost deleting comments in his support for other useless parasites in Japland here like him. Also when stupid Western ideas are stupid, they are.