Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tales From a Japanese Office — A Preface

As readers of my former blog may recall, I worked in a Japanese office for 12 years. From what I've learned about Japan, you can break office experiences down into (quite) roughly two types. One experience is with a company with a corporate culture. This usually occurs when you work for a big company with multiple offices. In such cases, workers tend to be pressured pretty hard to achieve and will often move around to different departments throughout their years of work with the same company. Opportunities for advancement are present, particularly for men who join the company right out of college. These companies are often at the heart of the typical "salaryman" experience which people imagine is the case in Japan.

The other sort of experience is no less common, but rarely talked about or seen as a model of employment in Japan. That is the experience of working for a small company which tends to have only one office or occupies multiple offices in the same building. Working for such places often involves being subject to the idiosyncrasies and whims of the president of the company as well as having limited opportunities for advancement. It's also common to witness a fair amount of nepotism and funneling of company profits to employees related to or who are friends of the president as a means of keeping as much money as possible in the hands of people he knows or loves. I worked in one such company as have many female students I have taught privately. Even if women work for bigger fish now, many of them cut their teeth at minnow-size companies.

I feel it's important to establish these two types of places before I start relating what I'm sure will be a sequence of tales from a Japanese office for two reasons. First of all, I don't want people to believe my experience was highly unique and atypical. If I am to believe my students' experiences, there are a wide variety of these small businesses being treated like personal fiefdoms all over Japan in addition to the more well-known corporate entities employing their drones. When students have related their own tales, I'm often shocked at the way their experiences so closely mirror my own because I had been under the misimpression that my experiences were unusual.

The second reason for this preface is that I want to chip away at the notion that working in a Japanese office is a guarantee that you're toiling in some slick, high-tech, hyper-efficient, super professional environment which is what I get the feeling foreigners imagine when they think of places like Sony or Toyota. You'd be surprised at how boring and grubby many places are. Also, the image of "worker ants" who labor late into the evening doesn't apply to such places. Since small places offer little or no chance to advance, the incentive to work until you die from karoshi (the Japanese term for death by working too much) is quite low.

You don't even have to work in a company to get a glimpse of the kind of company I'm talking about. All you have to do is ride the Yamanote line or Chuo line through a major district and look in the windows of some of the buildings. You'll see rows of desks facing each other and stacks of papers climbing the walls. It's all grey, boring, cluttered and cramped. That's the real world of work in Japan for many people. They don't even get cubicles for their own space or privacy. They're in what is sometimes called an "open office" or "open plan" where desks are placed side-by-side and directly across from each other so that the extent of your elbow room is the length of your desk and someone is always looking over your shoulder and across at you.

At my former office, not only did employees have no space other than the length of the desk, but the desks were quite short (about 80 cm/2.6 feet) and a short file cabinet was jammed under each desk so that people had somewhere to store documents. The amount of free space under the desk was about the width of the chair plus about half a foot (15 cm). This sort of layout is used to keep the workers in touch with each other and to foster teamwork. It also, almost certainly not coincidentally, made sure everyone was out in the open and could be scrutinized by others. Privacy was only afforded the president who had his own office with a door, though he usually kept it open so he could keep an eye on everyone.

I want to chronicle my experiences here so that I'll have a record of them as my memory fades. I will caution my readers that many of the experiences which I'll be relating will be strange or perhaps considered "bad" because those are the things which are of interest and which stick out most in my mind though I'm going to make an effort to remember the good things as well.

That being said, the primary benefit of my former job wasn't the fact that it was in a Japanese office but rather the fact that I had a lot of down time during the non-busy periods and was able to build my skills and indulge in a lot of self-training (and at times, my own personal interests). I was able to do this despite being in a Japanese office, not because of it. The truth was that the president had no interest in the foreigners advancing their skills and would have preferred to have kept us busy constantly, but the schedule simply was too lax at times to ensure this.

As I conclude this preface, I will note that I think that some of the problems were unique to working in Japan, but some of them also were simply the type of problems you have when you work in a small profit-driven company where notions of how the business is run are highly subjective and those in power feel free to manipulate others in accordance with their whims. Some of my experiences, I'm sure, could happen at similar companies anywhere in the world.


Emsk said...

These minnow-sized companies remind me of the one my student worked in. It sounded as if she was by far the smartest tool in the box, and so she requested a pay rise. As yet I don't know if she got one, but the whole shebang stunk of nepotism. It sounded as if the whole family was working there, my student being the only non-member. Apparently they'd tried to talk around the subject to avoid committing to a pay rise. I was very pleased that she stood up for herself and asked for one though.

Orchid64 said...

One of my students worked at a relatively smallish place up until very recently (she finally got another job). She constantly complained about how the "vice president" (who was the president's daughter) got big raises and bigger bonuses than anyone else.

I can't say if my company was so lop-sided, but I can say that the president's wife worked only about 1 day a week quite often (if that at times) and was paid 500,000 yen a month.

Later, the president talked his daughter into working there, too, but she really didn't want to do it and eventually escaped.

I wonder just how many of these places populated with family members are out there.

Many thanks for commenting, Emily. :-)

Seth said...

Great post. I worked in a family place, about 120 of us. Every time someone had a birthday (average 1 every 3 days) we all had to gather, just before lunchtime, where the 'victim' would be presented with flowers and then interviewed about their life (with mic and speaker) and then give a speech about the turning point in their life (often, joining the company - naturally!). The whole palava would take about 15 minutes per birthday.

Orchid64 said...

Hi, Seth, and welcome. Thanks for reading and commenting.

I had totally forgotten about the birthday thing that used to happen almost exactly the same at our office (sans microphone - we only had about 30-40 employees)! Your comment brought that particular memory back. :-)

seth said...

Hi Emily. Actually is your old blog still online? Would love to read of some more of your office experiences and observations.