The work culture in Tokyo

work culture
Denys Turavtsov /
Updated 2019-04-03 11:55

In Japan, the value of having a job floods the entire social fabric. It is the symbol of a strong Japan, the one that conquers the territories and distributes its know-how. Having a job is a sign of success: employment is a vector of social status. However, this system, in which respect for hierarchy is paramount, has shown its limits.

Dress code

Tokyo in the morning

Employees rush into the metro and the train. They all wear the same style of clothing: dark suits for men and the same for women. In Japan, to go to work, the dress code is very conservative. Showing off is not useful. Serving the company, being useful to the group, not disturbing are the values of the company in the Japanese style. The suit becomes the uniform.

Wearing a uniform is compulsory from junior high school or even for private schools. And when you enter the labour market a new uniform is needed: suits in neutral tones (navy blue, grey, black), and black or brown shoes. It is the uniform of the Japanese "salaryman". Women are also subject to this social etiquette: trouser suit (or skirt, knee length) in neutral tones. However, they can afford a few touches of pastel colors (blue, pink, beige, etc.), always in keeping with the company's culture, since employees represent their company, and must, therefore, reflect its norms and values.

While Western countries also adopt dress codes, these are reserved for managerial and other executive positions, for certain professions (banking, finance, etc.), but employees are rarely be reprimanded if they come to work in jeans and trainers. In Japan, the standard to be followed and respected is that of the company.

This is growing more and more flexible as temperatures in summer quickly become unbearable as a result of global warming, especially in Tokyo, with high record temperatures. In 2005, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment launched "Cool Biz" to fight energy waste (intensive use of air conditioning). Today, nobody wears a suit and tie in the summer. The campaign is regularly renewed, allowing employees to wear shirts (the short-sleeved shirt) and "breathable pants". The most avant-garde designers even offer "Bermuda Rags."

Corporate culture and group cohesion

The work culture in Japan also involves a lot of order and hierarchy. Depending on your rank, you are called - director, head, leader, manager, etc. as a sign of respect. Discretion and humility are the keywords. The same respect prevails among colleagues prevails the same respect. The work is done in small groups and coordination. In any situation, we seek to preserve "wa", the harmony.

Officially, the Japanese work 40 hours a week - which means eight consecutive hours a day. Some sectors, such as construction, medicine, and catering, benefit from an adjustment of this legal framework. The framework itself has been widely challenged in practice. Few employees limit themselves to 40 hours per week. In practice, it is more like 50 hours, on average. Japan is one of the countries with the highest number of overtime hours in the world. Hours not always paid for low and counterproductive result.

The Abe government is trying to propose an alternative as these overtime hours do not boost productivity. Rather than "working more", in Japan, we "stay more". After the regular working hours, it is common to stay in the office. If you leave first it breaks the harmony of the group thus showing individualism and selfishness. If the manager hasn't left yet, the employee must stay. It is rather overtime hours of attendance that overtime itself.

A new trend is slowly emerging. To fight against the culture of staying at work after regular working hours, some managers advise their employees to return home after work, even if it means skipping the nomikai, the outing between colleagues.

A practice that is firmly embedded in the company's culture. The Nomikai helps to strengthen ties between colleagues, and also between managers and employees. It is a get together often made in a bar to consume alcoholic beverages. Barriers come down, and people feel free to talk. If you say something wrong, we can always blame it on alcohol. The next day, these will be forgotten, and everyone will go back to work, with plenty of supplements against the hangover.

Young recruits learn a few untold things when they do their first nomikai. However, specific codes even apply to the nomikai. At the bar, you cannot sit anywhere you want. The hierarchy must be respected - which means that the leader will have the best seat. Then, depending on the importance of their function, the deputy heads follow. Young trainees find themselves at the end of the table (near the front door, the passage area etc. which is considered the worst place).

Does the nomikai favour integration or does it add stress? Some get the feeling that they are still working after work, so it becomes a constraint from which it looks difficult to escape, else you could break the wa or the harmony of the group.

Death at work

This harmony is also undermined by holidays which is a controversial topic. The Abe government has done its homework. Employees have an average of 10 days of paid holidays per year, but many do not take them due to the presenteeism culture. At most, they will only take a few days off.

This dedication to the company is now a problem. Besides having a lesser effect on productivity, it makes networking harder. Employees endure in silence. This is called gaman (patience, endurance).

Furthermore, this devotion leads to abuses, increasing pressure on employees. Authoritarianism - some superiors are reported to misuse their position, leading to harassment. Women are particularly affected by these abusive situations. It is difficult for them to evolve in a society with a patriarchal and masculine vision. The office lady (OL), in the company, still seems to be seen as the one who will bring coffee and photocopies to meetings.

While attitudes are gradually changing, the pressure on employees is leading to tragedies. Burn-out, bore-out, even suicide: this is karoshi, "death at work". This is the tragedy of Japanese employees, hassled by a system that tends to erase the human capacities in favour of its function. Accumulation of stress, excessive work, a lifestyle entirely focused on the company are the main causes of these tragedies. The Japanese government estimates that some 200 people die each year due to overwork.

Karoshi is indicative of a system that no longer understands humans. The person, seen only through the spectrum of his or her role (employee, middle manager, senior manager, etc.) is under constant pressure.

There's a work overload and a dominant corporate culture that puts society before family. Work days are longer compared to the moments spent with the family, referred to the weekend when they are non-existent. The Japanese live at their workplace, go out with their colleagues, sleep on their desk. Life is, therefore, fuelled by working hours and overtime.

The Japanese government is also aware that these abuses are detrimental to the well-being of the population. The government is also thinking macro-economically and sees the presence of an even more serious crisis in Japan, which is facing the dual challenge of a lack of births and an increase in life expectancy. What is the wage share and for what productivity? Some sectors are already tensed. Japan is short of manpower. The whole corporate culture needs to be reshaped, to better take into account the human factor as a member of the group, but also of an entire entity that must be respected.

The gentle revolution: the ikagai

Compared to the dominant corporate culture, ikagai offers to refocus on oneself. This word means "well-being". It is the "leaf of life" for everyone. The origin of ikagai? It comes from Okinawa, the island known worldwide for its large number of centenarians. We often talk about their diet. We are now looking at their philosophy of life: will it be the recipe for happiness in the company?

To talk about ikagai is, first of all, to talk about taking a break, unplug. It's a revolution in a system where work value regularises relationships. The ikagai changes the target: the company is no longer the one that decides and imposes. The human being is placed at the heart of the exchanges.

The main question becomes: why get up every morning? What motivates the individual?

The ikagai echoes some of the exercises proposed in the skills assessment, where you establish a list of what you like and dislike. With this Okinawa method, you go back to the roots, learning about yourself, understanding what you want, what you can accept, and what is good for you.

Create a pleasant working environment. Propose real interactions, no longer based on nomikai, but on constructive exchanges, where everyone makes full use of their right of expression. Learn to let go. Going away for the weekend. Take a vacation. Disseminating these new practices for all companies is the challenge of ikagai.

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