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TV drama glorifies the Japanese scourge of working illegally for nothing

by

Contributing Writer

The TV industry in Japan has two seasons: spring and autumn. Each April and October, every commercial station launches a 10-episode seasonal drama. In the preceding weeks, the media traditionally raise a ruckus, zooming in on the debut actors and squabbling over which station’s program will top the ratings.

Back in the 1990s, at a time when the internet was just beginning to take off, the TV served as the centerpiece of all our homes. Being such an important experience shared across much of the country, TV dramas began influencing the world outside the box. Fuji TV’s Monday (getsuyōbi) 9 p.m. (ku-ji) drama slot became known affectionately by the acronym “getsuku,” and commentators pondered what new trend the next getsuku would spawn.

In fact, despite Japan’s work-to-death culture, office districts would empty on Monday nights as salarymen and office ladies rushed home in time to catch the 9 p.m. show. At university at the time, I fell behind on the latest fads because I never became engrossed in the whole TV drama scene. But I remember my friends breathlessly giving me their updates on the shows.

TV’s influence no longer impacts equally across the generations in Japan. The core TV viewership is now middle-aged or elderly; today’s youth have loosened their ties to the tube and are now spinning more web-centered lives. Some dramas still manage to kick up a stir, and the No. 1 draw today is a dramatic adaptation of a book by novelist Jun Ikeido.

A wee firm against the world

A former bank employee, Ikeido has penned dozens of novels about corporations and the human beings working for them, including stories about standing up to corporate corruption and of struggling small companies that win out over large ones through innovation and passion.

What shot Ikeido to fame was a 2013 TBS Sunday night drama called “Naoki Hanzawa,” whose titular character fought against organizational corruption at a mega-bank. The program’s final episode achieved ratings of over 40 percent. Many successful adaptations of Ikeido’s books followed, as stations began seeing his work as a safe bet.

This autumn’s Ikeido TV adaptation is “Rikuo.” Opening on Oct. 15 with respectable ratings of 14.7 percent (according to Video Research Ltd.’s figures for the Kanto region), the drama stars Koji Yakusho and a bevy of actresses at the top of their game.

In the drama, a traditional sock maker in Saitama Prefecture in its centennial year is struggling with plunging demand as fewer people are wearing kimonos. Earnings are poor and cash flow is worse. The company president, Koichi Miyazawa, approaches a local bank for additional funding, but the bank balks, ostensibly saying that it can’t make loans to sunset industries whose earnings appear to be in terminal decline. One loan officer, however, tells Miyazawa that socks alone won’t be enough to save the company. He suggests that Kohazeya will have to pluck up the courage to expand its business if it is to survive.

After much racking of brains, Miyazawa decides the company will develop shoes for marathon runners, but drawing upon the artisanal skills built up at the firm over generations. Yet major sports manufacturers control the running-shoe market, and Kohazeya is accused by its enemies of being an upstart startup with pie-in-the-sky ambitions. But the company never gives up, and the employees come together and work their socks off to become … well, you can guess the rest.

Deviating from the legal script

In the book, the corporate David and Goliath set-up — with a united workforce taking on the big boys — is the long and short of the story. I happened to be at home for the first episode of the series. I was happy about the hype surrounding the drama because I thought this kind of story might inspire workers to build solidarity at their companies and dream big. However, it wasn’t long before something burst my bubble.

The middle-aged and elderly women working at the sewn-products division toil morning to night — with many scenes depicting overtime work — to develop the running shoes. The company is desperate to develop footwear that can endure the punishment of a professional marathon. Despite having household chores, children and other home responsibilities, many of the women stay until late at the factories working on sewing machines to create prototypes of the new shoes. Some of the women gripe, but in the end they all decide to do successive nights of overtime.

What’s worse, they don’t get paid for it. Unpaid overtime is known as sābisu zangyō (“service” overtime). Miyazawa apologizes to his workers, but says: “We are close to developing the shoes and I’ll pay as soon as we get a loan from the bank. Please put up with this just a bit longer.”

In the end, the workers accept the president’s sincerity and continue to work overtime for free. The message is about the beauty of the workers and the president of a small business coming together as one to accomplish a great feat. The scene where the workers accept the president’s apology ruined it for me. From that point on, I lost all respect for the show and could no longer enjoy it.

The workers in the original novel do get paid for their overtime. Whose bright idea was it to add sābisu overtime to the TV adaptation? Perhaps they felt it would make the drama more … dramatic? More moving? What a shame that TV programmers feel they have to resort to mawkish sentimentality to retain their ratings.

Be that as it may, I think in this case the TV station should have played it by the book and considered the message it is sending out to the wider society. Nonpayment of wages is a violation of the Labor Standards Law, an illegal action that puts the company president at risk of arrest and criminal prosecution. How can this crime be beautiful or moving?

It was only a few weeks back that NHK finally admitted that a former reporter on the state broadcaster had worked herself to death — a phenomenon known as karōshi. In September 2016 it was revealed that a 25-year-old worker at the largest ad agency in Japan, Dentsu, had killed herself due to overwork.

Even the media world has been touched by the tragedy of workers losing their lives for the sake of excessive extra hours of toil. TV executives need to take a hard look at their own industry and stop glorifying the idea of working for nothing.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union. She can be reached at tozen.okunuki@gmail.com. Labor Pains appears in print on the last Monday of the month.
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