“If your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right.” — Talking Heads

Last January, NHK’s nightly in-depth news series, “Closeup Gendai,” ran a feature about the practice of “poeticizing” (poemu-ka) the harsher aspects of life. It’s not a trend that’s easy to explain, and the program used an event called Izakaya Koshien as an illustration. A food service industry convention invites izakaya (drinking establishments) from all over Japan to send employees who present their ideas for “making Japan feel good.” On stage, staff from the businesses they represent declaimed in stylized speech how much they love their work and how it fulfills their “dreams.” The most convincing presentation won a prize.

Though the contest was not the focus of the report, it became a topic of controversy, according to the Japan Business Journal. The Internet was filled with derisive comments by people who found the emotions on display “weird” and reminiscent of cultlike “mind control.” Some blasted NHK for showing the competition in what they perceived as a positive light. But the organizers of the convention also complained, saying that NHK manipulated its coverage to make the presentations seem “unpleasant.”

Both sides had a point. The organizers thought NHK was prejudiced against the contest, since the implied aim of the report was to show how poeticizing experiences “covers up” something distressing, which in this case could be interpreted as the exploitation of wage-earners, a major social issue right now. But the Internet critics were also right in that NHK seemed perversely enamored of the contestants’ yarigai, a word meaning “enthusiasm” or “drive,” which is often used positively to describe an approach to work that stresses dedication to one’s job over expectations of monetary compensation or other material rewards.

Sociologist Yuki Honda has written extensively about this phenomenon, which she says employers use to their advantage. Young people are led to believe they can find personal enrichment by applying themselves selflessly to their work, regardless of how mundane, repetitive and physically demanding that work is. Several weeks ago she discussed her theories on NHK radio and used the example of izakaya, some of which she says are run like dojo — places where you receive training from a “master” (shihan). The employer creates an atmosphere that discourages workers from thinking about wages and benefits because that would cheapen their desire to become better persons.

The rhetoric surrounding Japan’s employment situation includes the yarigai ideal. Last week, in one of Asahi Shimbun’s pseudonymous “Keizai Kishodai” (Economic Weather Station) columns, the author said that with Japan entering a new era of economic stability, it must apply new models of employment to succeed. A system that bases pay solely on time spent on the job is old-fashioned. Though some types of work do lend themselves to hourly-wage systems, in order for a company to grow it will require workers who are willing to pledge themselves to improving that company, and so pay should be determined by achievement. Merit-based pay is not a new concept, but Keidanren, the country’s largest business lobby, has been pressuring the government to make it the norm in Japan. The government has responded positively with proposals for special economic zones where labor rules are relaxed. The writer of the column also wants performance-based pay to become standard throughout Japan. It’s yarigai in formal finance-speak: Workers shouldn’t worry about money. They should be thinking about the long-term health of their companies and their own self-actualization.

The concept is being tested with regard to overtime. The new chairman of Keidanren, Sadayuki Sakakibara, has even quantified the goal: “Zero overtime pay” should be applied to at least 10 percent of the workforce. So far, the government has only targeted people who make more than 10 million a year for zero overtime, which is about 3.8 percent of all workers. Asahi Shimbun commented that Sakakibara’s statement displays the business community’s honne (real feelings) on the issue, which has already been challenged. On April 24, the Yokohama District Court ruled that a shipping company owed four drivers a total of ¥43 million in unpaid overtime. The plaintiffs claimed the time they spent waiting to load or unload deliveries was not counted toward their work-hours since the company deemed it “rest time.” However, the defense argued that overtime was incorporated into something called an “achievement allowance,” the idea being that drivers are compensated for performance and not just hours. The court said that any time drivers spend waiting is time working, since that time occurs during a regular work day and drivers cannot use it freely. The judge also said there is no way of determining what portion of the achievement allowance, which is entirely discretionary, constitutes overtime pay, since it isn’t indicated.

Though the shipping company doesn’t use the word “yarigai,” the premise is the same. In a related article in Chunichi Shimbun, labor lawyer Ichiro Natsume says zero overtime for specialized workers is a stepping stone to performance-based pay for all workers, and when you remove time from the pay equation, overwork is the natural result.

The news media have been skeptical about the so-called white-collar exemption and the zero overtime proposal, but it was also the media that romanticized yarigai and gave birth to the poeticizing trend, which critics trace to the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, when people needed reassurance to cope with the horror and sadness. The NHK announcer who interviewed Honda commented that “we in the media” are partly responsible for “yarigai exploitation” through positive coverage of such trends, though he didn’t mention the “Closeup Gendai” report, which seemed to be of two minds regarding the subject.