It’s 8pm and I’m still at my desk. I work at an ordinary Japanese company. I work hard, and like all of the employees at my company, I do overtime (known as ‘zangyou’). Lots of zangyou. Of the unpaid variety. And what do I do with my zangyou? Well, you know. I look up hemorrhagic fever on the net, flirt with Honda from accounting, drink coffee, sleep. You see, it’s not about battling through the work I haven’t finished yet. I finished all my work hours ago. It’s not about the work. It’s about the appearance of work, of going the extra mile for the sake of the company. I stay late to show my boss how damned dedicated I am. And I’m not the only one.
Honda from accounting? Well I don’t know how often I’ve interrupted him in the middle of some desperate, last minute, after-hours mathematical struggle. How often? Well, at a rough guess, I’d say, maybe… never. I’ve interrupted his naps, yes. And his viewing of Season 5 of “24”. Because Honda’s all done by 5.30. But if I ask if he’s going home, he laughs. ‘It’s too early yet’, he says, settling in for a kip.
Occasionally, of course, he leaves on time. But he never says ‘otsukaresama’, it’s always ‘itte-kimasu’. He won’t be back, no way. But he likes to imply that he will; that he’s gone on some work-related excursion and he’ll be back duly at 6, to fight the good fight on behalf of the company.
Don’t get me wrong, some companies get very busy indeed, and the zangyou is genuine, and in many companies not only is overtime genuine, but while it is technically unpaid, the base salary reflects the need for after-hours work. But necessary or not, Japan leads the world in both paid and unpaid overtime, with some white-collar workers regularly clocking up more than forty hours per month.
Since the post-war economic boom, the Japanese have been working like dogs. It’s like a bad habit they can’t kick, and it’s resulted in a different relationship between employees and employers than those seen in other industrialized countries. In Japan it is still common for workers to spend their whole working lives in one company. Although this is gradually changing, your usual Japanese employee is still light years from boasting anything like your average Aussie’s resume. It is quite acceptable back home to change companies, and even careers, every few years. What this means is that while a company might be highly selective of its employees, once selected, a clever company will make all reasonable effort to keep them. To lose a skilled and well-trained employee costs the company money. It is in their interests to provide the kind of equitable workplace that will encourage employees to stay. But some Japanese companies disdain such petty concerns. They can demand overtime, transfer people to Hokkaido with a week’s notice, give added responsibility with no extra pay. Japanese companies can do what they like, because they know their employees aren’t going anywhere. And, like the post-war companies who neglected environmental ethics in favor of profits, many modern companies neglect their responsibilities to their workers for the same cause.
But in human terms this is costing Japan a lot. Various health and social issues are ascribed to zangyou, including stress, heart disease, low birth rate (who has the time to think of such things? Or, once thought of, the energy to act?) occupational accidents, mental illness, suicide, and death from overwork.
But how do we create a workplace environment that discourages unnecessary overtime? And what would employees do with all that free time anyway? Well I suppose they might read, play with their kids, chat to their spouses, go on a date with the bloke from accounting, who knows? And there seems little doubt that a well-rested worker would be both more productive and happier.
But I just can’t see Japanese companies turning around in fits of ethical remorse and sending everyone home on the dot to spend quality time with the fam. No, the onus is on the people. Workers in Japan have to demand what they want. We need to stand up in front of our employers and…oh dear, I’m sorry. I seem to have slipped into the genre of fantasy. Workers in Japan making demands? Ha. That’s never going to happen. Workers in Japan do what everyone else is doing, and everyone else is working till the wee hours.
So what I suggest, people, is that we get up from our desks at 5.30 every day, and with a serious and perhaps slightly distracted ‘itte-kimasu’ , get ourselves away home to play with the kids – because the overtime we put in there really does pay.
by Karen Dobson, Australian, Professional Melancholic
Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn94, Oct. 2006)