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775: The M-List
774: Compatriotic Spirit
773: The Naked Truth
770-71: It Ainít Easy Being Green
769: íTwas the Night Before Christmas in Japan
768: Japanese Lessons
766: Bad Credit
765: Chew on this
764: Red faced
763: Down and Out in Tokyo
761: Kicking the bucket
760: Thumbing It
759: Fixing the System
757: Smoke rings
756: Stalking the Predators
755: Banding Together
753: No Competition
752: Sex and This City
751: Letís Shogi
750: The Yasukuni Follies
748: Loud and Clear
747: Iíll be back
746: Raiders of the lost SMAP
744: Magical Mystery Tour
743: Murder in Lotus Land
742: Stereotypes íRí Us
740: The Mother of all Mothers
739: Crimes of Fashion
738: The Hafu Dad Brigade
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736: Fight Club
735: The Paper Chase
734: The Wind-Up Writer Chronicle
733: Food For Thought?
732: Home and Away
731: The 2008 Nazi Olympics
730: The Two-Wheel Revolution
729: Gimme a Break
728: Power Play
727: Dying for a doctor
726: Footloose Revisited
725: Little Fish, Bigger Pond
724: Japanís Peace Monster
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722: Scumbusters ďRĒ Us
721: First Action Hiro
720: The Return of Asashoryu
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716: The 30 Percent Solution
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548: Article of faith
547: Martyrs for the firm
546: A different anniversary
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544: Wrongs & rights
543: Moore or less
542: Fair games
541: Developmentally challenged

By Richard F. May

Martyrs for the firm

Slow-life culture clashes with Japanese management style


After 15-plus years in Japan, Richard May has down-shifted into the slow lane to better enjoy his work as a Tokyo-based consumer lifestyle researcher

Here we are on the cusp of two more national holidays. First up on Monday, September 20, is Respect for the Aged Day (keiro no hi) followed by the Autumnal Equinox Day (shubun no hi) on September 23. Wow, by taking a couple days of paid leave, a working stiff could string together nine days for a real wing-ding of a late summer vacation. That’s a far cry from the old days, when national holidays falling on weekends were lost in the Japanese government’s efforts to keep the nation’s factories charging full-speed ahead.

In my work as a marketing researcher investigating Asian consumer behavior, I have begun to notice a clash of work cultures in recent years. As described in a recent Metropolis feature story, a growing segment of over-40 workers is adopting a “slow-life” consumption pattern. These men and women have earned and saved reasonably well, but are now opting not to continue the pursuit up the corporate ladder. They are prime luxury-goods consumers and avid buyers of up-market items. The trend has not escaped the notice of large Japanese manufacturers, who target them with products ranging from SUVs to gas-powered generators. In another sign of the slowdown, the “green” and organic movements are experiencing renewed interest among shoppers in Japan’s big cities.

At odds with this trend, however, is the drive by the now-slimmed-down companies to keep productivity up in order to meet renewed consumer optimism. As the ranks of workers at Japan’s factories and offices have been trimmed down, the remaining crew has to pick up the slack. The need for even more overtime work is a pressing matter from the corporations’ perspective, since consumer demand is rebounding and sales of luxury items, especially digital goods such as LCD TVs, cameras and phones of all types, are on the rise.

So now that he is working harder and longer, why is it that the Japanese salaryman, even when presented with such a golden opportunity as the upcoming multiple national holidays, won’t take advantage of that time off? Japanese government data shows that workers here regularly pass up earned annual holidays and don’t think ill of their employers for receiving nothing in return.

Or do they? Measured in monetary terms, workers are not compensated for overtime or missed holiday leave. But maybe they are getting a different and very important compensation.

In a group-based country such as Japan, a worker might be willing to give up paid leave if he or she were showing dedication to the company—unlike all the part-time sluggards that slip out at the “normal” quitting time. To ask for compensation for this act of workplace piety might undercut the whole exercise. The posted holiday schedule and working hours are simply hurdles, barriers in the career roadway, that any sensible worker knows exists, only to be cleared in a single bound without thought of remuneration. It is OK for part-timers, contractors and non-career-path employees to bug out on time. But a “real” worker would be looked down on as slothful for simply meeting minimum legal requirements in terms of hours clocked at the office desk.

Labor statistics tell one story, while the workers themselves tell a different one. A look at Japanese government figures from the Ministry of Labor indicates that worker hours are declining. But these numbers are based on hours reported by large corporations’ HR departments. Their reasoning is that, since records show that the company paid no overtime, there was no overtime worked. And the figures include the days of holiday leave an employee is entitled to take. Tricky logic there, since no “serious” worker would actually avail himself of those days off. On the other hand, figures in the Japan Worker Survey taken by the Prime Minister’s Office, which are based on employee-reported data, show a considerably greater number of hours worked.

Whether grounded in cultural values such as Buddhism and Confucianism, or arising from factors like upbringing, the desire of middle-aged Japanese workers for a slower lifestyle is on a collision course with corporate management. Driven to extract more unpaid overtime work and foregone holidays from their employees, firms are on the way to alienating their most devoted cadre of workers. Personally, I’m hoping “slow-life consumption pattern” workers make strides against misconceived corporate productivity drives. Their message to large corporations? Go ahead, hire some new workers, spread the wealth—and leave us all more time in which to enjoy our working and spending activities.