Language | BILINGUAL

For 'overtime refugees,' home is where the heart isn't

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

別にホームレスなわけじゃなくて、家にかえりたくないだけ (Betsu ni hōmuresuna wake janakute, ie ni kaeritakunai dake, “It’s not that I’m homeless, I just don’t feel like going home!”). So said a friend at a 飲み会 (nomikai, drinking party) recently, and the statement was met with nodding heads, all of them male.

This particular nomikai was a casual 仕事がらみ (shigoto-garami, work-related) get-together, and the age range varied from late 30s to late 40s. Only three of the 12 attendees were women, and almost everyone was a 会社員 (kaisha-in, company employee). The talk followed the typical nomikai pattern of everyone complaining about their jobs — defined by long hours and burdensome protocols — and then their resulting health woes.

And then my friend dropped a little bombshell: He avoided going home (a 3LDK [house with three rooms and a living, dining and kitchen space] in Chiba Prefecture) not just because the total 90-minute daily commute was a bummer, but because he was なんだか気まずい (nandaka kimazui, sort of uncomfortable) about spending time with his family. His wife was a 専業主婦 (sengyō shufu, stay-at-home mom), totally wrapped up in the 子育て (kosodate, child-rearing) of their two young daughters, and he had been feeling redundant in his own home for the past couple of years. 残業してたほうが気が楽 (Zangyō shiteta hō ga ki ga raku, “I’d rather be working overtime — I feel better that way”), he said, and added that he stayed over at a カプセル ホテル (kapuseru hoteru, capsule hotel) two or three nights a week. There were many intonements of わかるよ (Wakaru yo, “I totally understand”) from the men sitting around him.

So far, so typical salaryman. But now, an increasing number of Japanese companies are banning the very practice of overtime, at least one day a week. The most popular day is Wednesday, followed by Friday, and on these days employees are shooed out of the building by 8 p.m. with repeated announcements over a loudspeaker: 本日はノー残業デイです。早めに退社しましょう (Honjitsu wa nō zangyō dei desu. Hayame ni taisha shimashō, “Today is no-overtime day. Let’s all leave the building soon”). Food manufacturer Ajinomoto has shifted that time to 6 p.m., an unthinkable 退社時刻 (taishajikoku, time to go home for the day) for the Japanese salaryman. IT system development company SCSK has promised its departments and divisions extra bonus rewards if they succeed in slashing overtime. It looks as though the concept of work-life-balance has finally become a thing in Japan, as company helmsmen belatedly realize how excessive overtime does more harm than good. After all, the longer people stick around in offices, the higher the utility and security bills. And study after study has shown that overtime breeds chronic fatigue and stress, ultimately leading to poor work performance, possibly higher medical bills and a bad company image.

What the company heads and the researchers behind these studies don’t understand, however, is that a large number of Japanese just don’t want to go home. 帰宅恐怖症 (kitakukyōfushō, fear of going home) — the Japanese version of FOMO (fear of missing out) — is a phenomenon that has been around since the mid-1990s, and basically refers to what my friend dared to express at the nomikai: It’s not that he doesn’t value his family or his house (he is, after all, the one paying the 35-year mortgage), but, as he said (and many other men have said it before him), どうも足が家に向かない (Dō mo ashi ga ie ni mukanai, “I just can’t make tracks toward home”).

As Japanese companies struggle to dispatch their employees home, the employees are hatching new schemes to avoid doing just that. Some will sneak back into the office after a couple of drinks, turn on little desk lamps stashed inside their desk drawers and sit there until morning. Others have put in requests to be allowed to pick their own no-zangyō days so their schedules won’t coincide with their wives’. This fear of going home has kept the Japanese 繁華街 (hankagai, streets busy with shops and restaurants) in business through the decades. After 8 p.m., the streets have always been inundated with men in suits, wandering around looking for a place to chill.

Enter the 残業難民 (zangyō nanmin, overtime refugees), who choose to be homeless for a few hours or the whole night, depending on their circumstances. After a day at work (plus an average of 2.5 hours of overtime every day, according to the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry), these refugees roam the streets in search of alcohol, solace or a quiet place to sit with their laptops.

There is now a niche industry catering exclusively to the needs of these refugees, including the famed beef bowl chain Yoshinoya, which these days serves cheap beer, drinks and appetizers in the evenings. Starbucks Japan is doing the same thing in a number of outlets, specifically targeting salarymen on their no-zangyō nights. 漫画喫茶 (manga kissa, internet cafes) are booming as they increase the number of showers and tiny cubicles where salarymen can grab a 仮眠 (kamin, snooze) before getting the first train at dawn. For many Japanese, home is where they just don’t want to be.