Working for and with many different Japanese over the years I have come to perceive a grievously divergent sense of work priorities between us. I see progress made in any endeavor - one’s employment, scientific advances, the march of civilization, or the exploration of space, the oceans or the genome - as the cumulative effect of incalculable little things. I mean, the accomplishment of grand achievements depends on the execution of legions of small things: conquering armies need latrines, kitchens and a laundry service. In my life I tend to concentrate on the small things that are right in front of me, and I derive a sense of pride in achieving them - each humble chore is one more, tiny footstep up the mountain. And I think that is natural for most people, as well. My priority is to do first whatcan be done. But in my work with Japanese I have had conflict when my idea of what is important and reasonably achievable differs from theirs. Now, understand that my relationship with Japanese is always as employee to employer. My job is to do as I am told more than to think for myself, and certainly not to ask questions. I am disenfranchised in this society. That means, I am effectively powerless - just the way Japanese like us to be. If my employers are not happy they simply find another foreigner to do the same work and they put another negative notch in their mental Foreigner Employee File. After all, there are many others out there willing to work for less.
My Japanese bosses want me to devote myself to the big projects, the ones that cannot be finished soon, the one’s that carry a long-term, far-off end date. I want to accomplish the important, big jobs, of course, but even more I want to clear my desk of the daily accumulation of little things that I know I can deal with in just a few minutes. But the boss’s eyes are always watching, and if he does not see my fingers move to the papers he wants me to work on as soon as my bottom hits the chair then he is on me immediately to “do this now” (in a kind tone of voice, not a malicious one). The result is that more and more things that could be accomplished quickly are left undone and accumulate while the large things progress ever so slowly, with little sense of progress being made.
And get this: my contract states that my work starts at 9:30 a.m. But if I come in early - say, 9:00 - with the intention of working on my priorities on my time I find that my bosses assume that as soon as I am on the premises my time is their time and they demand work on their (unachievable) priorities. I do not point out to them that my contract says my work starts at 9:30 and that, therefore, any right thinking person ought to conclude that my time is my own outside the boundaries of contracted labor. Doing that would just cause trouble and upset our “ningen kankei,” our human relations.
In the end, I get my job done despite my employers more than because of them, leading me towards the conclusion that there is a serious mis-use of time here. But it’s not very surprising because Japanese have a reputation as time-wasters. They are less productive per hour than European or American workers and they are noticeably under-employed (too many employed to do too little, forcing many workers to work hard at giving the impression of being busy - and the impression is taken as a reality since appearance is the single greatest consideration in Japanese culture). Of course, the former is related to the latter.