In a country that cherishes harmony and understanding, I am bewildered with how unsympathetic the companies are to the needs of their employees. From speaking with people and listening to their day to day work stories, and through some of my own experiences, I assert that conditions for lowly employees in Japan are pretty grim. Just to make it clear, I am not talking about someone with a title job, just a regular associate or 会社員 (kaishain- company person) as they call them in Japan. Also this is a generalization, of course there are exceptions to what I describe here, but count on it being an overwhelming majority.
Fist off, forget about being comfortable at work in the summer or winter. The Japanese company believe strongly in energy saving strategies. This means that you can look forward to air conditioning being set at a comfortable 28°C or 82°F for the American crowd. They do make concessions in the summer with what is called coolbiz attire, this includes no tie and short sleeve button down shirt. You still have to wear slacks.
Also forget about being compensated for doing overtime. In Japan, doing overtime is almost a requirement. Even though, much like in US there are laws against it, most companies bypass it by making new employees sign an agreement when they are offered a job, that they won’t be paid overtime. So what you might say, I do overtime sometimes at my current job too. We’ll I’m willing to bet that you don’t do as much as an average employee does in Japan.
A study conducted in 2004 by the JILPT found that the total number of hours worked in a month averaged 198.9 hours, which equates to roughly 46.41 hours assuming there are 30 days in a month. This, however, includes overtime hours, which averaged 7.37 hours a week. It was found that 21.3 percent of workers had 11.6 unpaid overtime hour a week.
Now days, because of the perceived recession, employees are expected to buck up and do even more overtime. Doing one hour of unpaid overtime a day is almost the norm. Some of my personal contacts have said that they do 2-3 hours of overtime at least 3 days a week. People are afraid to say now because everyone is scared to loose their job, something that is really hard to get in Japan if you’ve been fired.
Vacation time is restricted as well. Japanese do get more holidays than US, with 15 national holidays compared with 10. It is also nice that there is a strip of holidays placed together so that Japanese get almost a whole week of national holidays. However, since everyone is off at the same time, travel during that time is somewhat unpleasant. Prices go up because of the demand, and because of the volume of travelers, all public transportation becomes very crowded. Taking actual time off from work other times that the planed holidays is difficult. Taking a week off is rarely allowed, and even if it is, brings an unwelcome attitude from your coworkers, since they have to pick up your workload while you’re gone.
Another aspect of Japanese work ethic is company 飲み会 (nomikai) or drinking party. Which could be fun, unless you have something you want to do at home or don’t drink alcohol. When a nomikai is announced by your boss, it is not an invitation as it is presented, if you don’t go to nomikai, you’re though of as not a company man. Repeated absence could result in lost promotions and falling out with coworkers. Also even though this could be classified as a company even, you’re responsible for your share of the bill, with everyone contributing an equal share, except for the senior company men or the boss, they usually contribute a larger share. If nomikai happens to be on a a day other than Friday, you’re still expected to show up to work bright and early, so make sure you don’t miss that last train to get home.
I know it sounds like I am a bitter, jilted, ex employee with a bone to pick with Japanese companies, I assure you I am not. With exception of one company, I have had a very pleasant and productive relationship with working for companies in Japan. There are also many positive things about working for a Japanese company, but I’ll save that for another post. This is just an outside out look at the masses of suits, moving about in Tokyo in what seems like an ant hill of unending activity.
If you have something to add or disagree with me, I am glad to hear from you in the comments.