Global Glance: May 9, 2016
A quick look at intriguing international stories
By John Bostwick, Managing Editor, Radius
Welcome back to Global Glance. This week we look at:
The Trouble With Japan’s Salarymen
Japanese executives are renowned for their commitment to work, sacrificing virtually everything to their employers. Something of their crushingly demanding, monotonous existence is captured in a YouTube video posted last year by a vlogger known as Stu, a British expat living in Tokyo who worked briefly for a financial services firm there.
The video has generated more than a million views and is the subject of a CNN Money article, which explains: “Stu is living the life of a typical Japanese ‘salaryman,’ or office worker. Considered by many to be the backbone of Japan's economy, these employees are expected to always put the company first. They work brutal hours, often followed by marathon drinking sessions with colleagues and clients.”
A fascinating piece in The Financial Times last week takes up the subject of Japan’s salarymen, mostly outlining the grave shortcomings of an economic-cultural phenomenon that has ossified over many decades. For virtually all of the last century, the salaryman was a vital, revered, dynamic pillar of Japanese culture, spurring the rise of companies such as Toyota and Sony. But, the Times explains, “in 2016, the salaryman — unassertive, allergic to risk and with a growing list of corporate debacles to his name — has switched from asset to liability.”
Japan’s economy has been stagnant for two decades now, leading Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to introduce a radical growth plan, commonly known as “Abenomics.” A Bloomberg.com summary explains: “Abenomics is built on unprecedented monetary easing, government spending and business deregulation to snap Japan out of its malaise.” It adds that “after early promise, progress appears to be stalling.”
According to the Times, most people in Japan (including salarymen themselves) see the culture of salarymen as the prime obstacle to invigorating the Japanese economy. Most agree that growth can only be attained through incorporating more women into the workforce, fostering innovation, allowing for mid-career shifts and improving productivity, among other reforms. Here’s the Times again: “The permanently employed salaryman, embedded in a single company, representing a majority of the white collar workforce, ringfenced by corporate instinct and bound into seniority-based progress, will not only fail to deliver any of those, say experts, he will actively resist them.”
One authority quoted in the article observes that Japan’s aggregate productivity has plummeted in recent years in part because salarymen are compensated based on time worked, which incentivizes long hours rather than efficient production. In addition, the Times notes, the heighted bureaucratic tendencies of salarymen have led to “scandals at Toshiba, Mitsubishi Motors and Asahi Kasei, where it emerged that data on accounts, emissions and building foundation piles were faked over many years.” A professor at a Tokyo university explains that the salaryman’s “skewed loyalty to the company and fear of internal authority comes at the clear cost to the customer and to society.”
Given this unyielding environment, it should come as zero surprise that salarymen who fall out of favor at one company may not be able to find work at another. “One Slip Can Sink a Salaryman’s Career,” published in The Japan Times this year, gives a glimpse of the bleak world of middle-aged former executives in Japan. One subject of the article is Kazuo, a 48-year-old unemployed man living at home with his mother. (His father became so exasperated with his son’s situation that one day he “strode out of the house and hasn’t been heard from since.”) According to the article, Japanese authorities estimate that last year there were nearly half a million unemployed Japanese citizens aged 35-54. Many of these “lose hold and fall through widening cracks in the social fabric, into private hells like Kazuo’s,” remaining unemployed for years on end.
Many who do manage to meet the demands of the salaryman don’t fare much better. The Japan Times published an anonymous interview last year titled “Ain’t No Cure for the Salaryman Blues.” The subject is a 41-year-old relatively unambitious engineer resigned to the fact that his modest salary and prospects will likely mean he’ll remain without a wife and children for the rest of his life, “along with 60-plus percent of Japanese males.” In one dark passage he admits, “I feel the emptiness of a man who has never sacrificed anything for anyone else.” He ends the interview by apologizing for his ways while pleading fatigue. This, he says, “is the salaryman’s excuse for everything.”
The Struggles of Japan’s Working Women
The burdens of Japan’s salarymen are many, but they are perhaps even more numerous for Japan’s working women. In a widely covered story in March, a Japanese government survey revealed that 29 percent of Japanese working women reported they had been sexually harassed at work. According to a related Wall Street Journal piece, the harassment took the form of “inappropriate touching, comments on the women’s age or appearance and being asked or pressed to have a sexual relationship.”
The Journal notes that the government study reflects only one of the many challenges faced by Japan’s working women, despite recent efforts by Prime Minister Abe, lawmakers and businesses to increase women in the workforce. These efforts have yielded some results. The Journal explains that Japan has a higher percentage of employed women than the US and Europe. However, “many of those jobs are temporary, part-time positions. And Japanese women hold far fewer leadership roles than their American and European counterparts.”
As Radius indicated in an update last fall, Japan has passed the Promotion of Women's Career Activities Act, which became effective last month. The law requires private companies with more than 300 workers to (among other things) gather and publish data on their women employees, such as the ratio of women to men and the percentage of women managers. A recent article in Bloomberg.com provides context for the new legislation, noting that according to a 2014 government study, only 9.2 percent of private-sector managers were women in Japan, compared to 25 percent in the US.
One especially formidable roadblock to incorporating more women into Japan’s workforce is the time commitment most employers demand from their workers. The Bloomberg.com article, for example, describes a woman from an elite university whose promising financial career was obliterated after she had children and could not put in the “salaryman”-type hours required by her employer. She’s just one of countless working Japanese mothers, the article notes, that are routinely “pushed to the sidelines.” One former working woman turned full-time mother quoted in the article expresses skepticism that Japan can truly incorporate mothers into the workforce any time soon, even with the new Promotion of Women's Career Activities Act. She says, “I have many friends who are in trouble because they can’t find day care.”
For more on Japan’s day care shortage, read the March 16 article “Japan Gets the Message as Working Mom’s Complaint Goes Viral,” published in USA Today. It explains that Japan implemented a government-funded day care network in the 1970s, primarily to help low-income families that needed both parents to work. Now, however, “demand has outstripped supply … as the cost of child-rearing has soared, and mothers have looked to return to work.”
According to the article, an anonymous blogger effected real change in this area. A working mother who failed to find day care for her baby wrote an angry post with the (roughly translated English) title of “My Child Wasn't Accepted at Nursery School. Die, Japan!” Essentially, the post went viral and ultimately led to protests outside Japan’s parliament, “a petition demanding better day care [that] got 28,000 signatures in just four days,” and a March 11 commitment from Abe that his government would add 500,000 day care slots to the system by the end of 2017. The article adds that “although Abe has said he places a high priority on creating more opportunities for women in the workplace, only about 30% of women return to work after giving birth.”
Abe and other Japanese authorities are getting flak from multiple sources on this front. On March 7, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women published its findings on Japan (along with its findings on six other countries). After a brief section titled “Positive Aspects,” a dozen pages of “concerns and recommendations” follow. The report contains a section specifically on employment that includes many of the topics addressed in this post, such as a sexual harassment, a concentration of women in low-paying jobs due to family responsibilities and a lack of subsidized childcare.
For more information about the findings, including a summary of Tokyo’s “sharp response,” check out “How a UN Committee Riled Japan With Its Criticism of Women’s Rights,” published in The Japan Times.