Contracts and company rules
So much has already been written about Japanese business culture. Over the years I’ve written my two cents worth, but I’ve done it sporadically and strictly anecdotally, not comprehensively, systematically or academically. I’ve written my comments as part of my ongoing narrative of Japanese life. But in a recent English conversation class with a young businessman about his working hours (compared to mine) I was reminded of the gulf between a Japanese worker’s relationship with his company and a Canadian or American’s relationship with theirs.
Firstly, I think that in North Americapeople are less concerned about who they work for - meaning pride in and loyalty to their employer - than with their work itself. North Americans want to be happy in their work, they want a job they enjoy, that fits their talents, skills and interests, and that pays them sufficiently. They may compromise on one point in order to gain in another, but overall satisfaction and pride in one’s work - not in one’s company - are the ideal. That makes North Americans more prone to casually leave one job and take up another, more satisfying one as it suits them, in the belief that the purpose of work is to liveand the purpose of life is to pursue happiness. In JapanI think people are still more concerned with the social prestige of the company than with personal satisfaction. A big corporation baptizes its employees with the glow of its reputation which descends upon all members of the group. So employees take pride in their company. Although the traditional practice of lifetime employment with a single company has been fairly battered by the economic troubles of the last two decades, the ideas of employee loyalty and respect/reverence for the prestige and reputation of the company - especially big corporations - are still very much evident. But a big drawback is that the company virtually owns the employee. If a Japanese says, “I am Tanaka of X Corporation” that means that he belongs to the company almost literally, a dynamic that lends itself to abuse. One underlying cultural motive is the belief that the purpose of life is to work. To illustrate this point, consider the Japanese holiday called “kinro kansha no hi,” just before American Thanksgiving Day in November. It means something like “Thanksgiving for Labor Day.” In other words, Japanese give thanks for the opportunity to work. It’s not really a bad thing to be thankful for these days. But I have never really met anyone here who understands the American idea of being thankful for the plenty of life. That’s another culture gap.
Another motive is the reputed individual orientation of Western cultures versus the group orientation of Japan. Today the question “Where do you work?” is still more important than “What do you do?” (In any event, it’s darned difficult for Japanese to distinguish between“What do you do?” - meaning a person’s job - and“What are you doing?” - meaning what activity a person is currently engaged in. So maybe we should give up on the former and either rely on “Where do you work?”, or else substitute “What is your job?” But “What is your job?” is not nearly as eloquent as “What do you do?”, and grammatically it’s not necessary to give it up if students would simply understand that the present tense can be used to express habitual, daily behavior like one’s schedule or one’s employment. But I digress.)
An overly neat desk, like an overly-neat home is a sign of a misspent life.
Second, I think that in North Americathe written contract is practically a sacred document. Your job description and the mutual responsibilities of employee-to-employer and employer-to-employee are all spelled out in clear black-and-white, properly signed and dated. A contract is a very legal document, and I imagine North American workers don’t lift a finger unless the contract tells them to.
By contrast, in Japan contracts are very loose things. Not very binding at all. Often there is no written contract at all, only an oral agreement, giving credence to the observation that for Chinese - and by extension for other East Asian cultures - a ‘contract’ is less an immutable, confirmed written agreement of mutual understanding than a mutable “ongoing negotiation.” Instead, as my businessman student described, there are the company ‘rules.’ Many years ago I wrote about an incident that I observed with my own eyes. My employer throughout the 1990s was in dispute with one of his teachers. (An Australian teacher. I don’t blame Mr. Suzuki for being in conflict with him, because the Australian was a colossal asshole.) Anyway, to resolve the dispute Mr. Suzuki saw nothing untoward in simply changing the teacher’s written contract, which he proceeded to do with a bottle of White Out.
Japanese college students devote their entire final year of school to a job search. Failure to find a job, and the related rise in the unemployment rate, reverberates throughout society because promotion in the workforce is related to seniority more than to skill, competence and performance. Failure to find work at 22 puts those unemployed at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives. When they attend job fairs and are introduced to prospective employers they learn not just about job descriptions, duties and remuneration but about the company rules as well, one of which is the overtime rule. Now as a Canadian I view overtime as an employee’s choice in pursuit of extra money, or else as a sign of the failure of the company. But in Japan, overtime is customary and part of the economic landscape. I can’t describe how nauseating that seems to me!
I expect a written contract to specify the hours of work. Start at 8:30 or 9:00, finish at 5:00, then go home. After that my time is my own, my life is private, and any work left on your desk can wait until the morrow. It will never go away. Until the day you retire your Inbox will be repeatedly refilled, so it seems pointless to worry about it at the end of your work day and not go home until your desk is clear. (Can one say that an overly-neat desk, like an overly-neat home is a sign of a misspent life?)
Does that reveal me as a non-businessperson type? Or, a self-centered bastard? Or, a lazy sod? I work very hard. In twenty years I have worked far harder and given more to my work from my own pocket than my work deserved. And look where it’s gotten me. No more. If I was self-employed with my own business, an endeavor requiring a lot more labor, I would change my ways accordingly. In fact, I look forward to it. But so long as we are employees of employers I look to the written contract as the framework of our working relationship. As a Westerners I see employers and employees as roughly equals. The workplace forces us into superior-subordinate relationships, hence the necessity of a contracts to guide us. But not so for Japanese, which is a much less egalitarian, more hierarchical society. There is no social egalitarianism at all, and employers are always superior, embodying the “sempai / kohai,” or senior/junior relationship. What need do Japanese workers have for a written contract to explain their working conditions when the sempai / kohai dynamic demands that they always follow their sempai anyway?
Japanese office workers may not leave their offices until their sempai or manager does. And even then, it’s often not to go home but to go to necessary after-hours eating, drinking and socializing, where bonds are formed.
When I was talking to my student I didn’t want to say all these things that I already knew. I wanted him to say them. So when he complained of fatigue from work I explored with provocative question like,
“Well, work finishes at 5:00 so why don’t you just stand up and leave?”
“Oh, I can’t do that.”
“Why not? Don’t you have a contract that tells you when work is finished?”
“I can’t leave if my work is not finished.’
“So what? Work is neverfinished. Just leave it there and pick up tomorrow morning where you left off.”
My suggestion is stupid and incomprehensible to Japanese. Japanese expect overtime as part of the natural practice of business.
Now, one of the conversation points with my student that provoked this article stems from his description of why he was so tired, and why he couldn’t leave his office until late the previous night. At 5:00 p.m. - a fair approximation of quitting time, I think - his boss took him aside and suddenly assigned him a presentation project for the start of the next business day. I can easily picture it, having been subjected to similar abuse by Japanese employers myself.