Life in a Big Company
LIFELONG employment, continuing education, promotions, bonuses, company housing, recreational facilities—these and many other benefits are the dream of workers around the world. In Japan, they are the day-to-day realities of many of its workers. In fact, they are probably the aspects of the Japanese miracle most talked about and admired by people elsewhere.
There are, however, other aspects that outsiders know little about. For example, just how much of one’s life is controlled or affected by the big companies? To what extent are one’s marriage, homelife, social life, and even religious views affected? What are the sacrifices one must make to fit in? These are things easily overlooked by outsiders because they are overshadowed by the prosperity and success. Yet, to a large extent, are these not the things that ultimately determine whether a person is truly happy, satisfied, and thus successful?
Manners at Work
One consequence of lifetime employment is the sensitive matter of rank or seniority. The men at the top have had long experience with the company. Naturally, they command the respect and cooperation of the younger people under them. The younger or newer employees, in turn, are ranked according to their years of service with the company. This creates a rather formal atmosphere at the workplace, and it is reflected in their speech and manners.
In Japanese there are three styles of speech. Just by listening to a person’s choice of words, you can tell whether he is speaking to his senior, peer, or junior. “To utter his name [alone] when addressing someone of older or of higher rank would be downright rude,” explains a Japanese business executive. Instead, the family, or last, name or the person’s title such as shacho (president) or bucho (manager) is used along with the courteous expression “san” or “sama.”
The bow, which can mean “thank you,” “excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and many other things, is an indispensable part of office etiquette. So is the expression “hai” (yes) along with a nod of the head. However, this “yes” does not mean “Yes, I agree,” but means “Yes, I understand what you are saying.” It is only a polite gesture to show respect for the speaker.
As a result, most men are like fish out of water once outside the workplace. When they meet another man who does not work at the same firm, conversation becomes awkward until they know his status so that the correct style of speech can be used. Calling cards and tactful questions are used to determine this before a conversation can begin. Informal and casual talk is difficult for them even with their wives and children. They feel at home only in the small circle of their company.
Loyalty to the Group
To bolster the team spirit, most companies furnish their workers with uniforms. Workers also organize themselves into small groups, not to bargain for better working conditions or higher wages, but to discuss how to improve efficiency and production. The managing director of one of Japan’s steel giants, which has not had a strike in 25 years, described their meetings this way: “We have lively discussions, but in the end everyone co-operates.” Individual workers, feeling that they have a voice in the matter, become more inclined to support company policies. “They think for the group and not for themselves,” said the director.
The difference between the Japanese management and that in the United States is illustrated by a Japanese economist this way: “Our system is rather like an electric train, with each car having its own motor, whereas your system is more like a long train drawn by two or three strong locomotives, with no motors in the other cars. You tell your workers to follow. We like people to have their own motivation—and move together.”
To show proper motivation, all employees are expected to work long and hard. Although the government has set the goal that by 1985 all companies should allow two-day weekends, a six-day workweek is still common. Only recently did banks begin the practice of closing one Saturday each month. Strangely, public reaction was cool, and an editorial in Yomiuri Shimbun viewed it as a means to silence “foreign criticism that the Japanese are workaholics.”
Overtime work, usually without extra pay, is routine. It has been reported that it is not unusual to see workers leaving their offices at 11 p.m. or even at midnight. Yet, this is accepted as a matter of course. A survey of recent high school and university graduates conducted by the Junior Executive Council of Japan found that “79 percent of the respondents work overtime when asked to even if they have to cancel a date,” reports The Japan Times.
Executives and supervisors do not have it any easier. In addition to the long days at the office, they frequently have to spend the evenings, or even weekends, attending meetings or entertaining clients and business associates, often late into the night. This is all done out of loyalty to the company. “I don’t like entertaining,” said a young executive who has a wife and four children, “but it has become an institution.”
Remunerations and Promotions
Extended vacations have never been a Japanese custom. A government report shows that even though most workers are entitled to 15 paid vacation days a year, they actually took only 8.3 days, on the average. The main holidays are at the turn of the year and in August when the custom of visiting ancestral graves is observed. Then there are the company outings that all employees are expected to—and do—attend. They are usually two-day weekend affairs to the mountains, hot springs, or company lodges, with plenty to eat and drink. Workers can unwind, have fun together, and get to know one another better.
A big thing with Japanese workers is the semiannual bonus, given according to the firm’s financial standing. Actually, it is a portion of their salary that the company sets aside. If the company does well, the workers receive the lump sum as a bonus. But if business is not so good, this portion may be scaled down. It is an effective incentive to the workers.
Salaries and promotions are determined largely by the seniority system. It is rare for a newer employee to be promoted ahead of his seniors, no matter how qualified he may be. In the event that this should happen, usually those who were passed over would be given some new titles so there would be no embarrassment or loss of face. This keeps friction to a minimum, and the interest of the group is served.
The situation with women employees is quite different. While about 39 percent of Japan’s work force are women, they are usually paid only about half the amount of a man’s salary. In fact, most companies do not offer promising positions to women even if they have the qualifications, because they are expected to work only until they marry and start a family.
Marriage and Family
The rigorous demands of work—six-day workweek and frequent overtime—leave the working man with little time for his family. Some men leave for work before the children are up and come home after they have gone to bed. They rarely see their children, except perhaps on Sunday. It may be said that the life of a typical company man, or sarariman (salary man) as he is called in Japan, revolves around his work. His home, wife, and family are like a small side business, giving him a place to eat and sleep, and a certain status in the community.
With few exceptions, the wife takes care of everything in the home. This includes not just the day-to-day household chores but also major decisions such as where to live, what to buy, and even the children’s education and discipline. Thus, in a subtle way, even though the men may still talk and act as if they are the heads of their families, most families of the big-company men are really matriarchal arrangements.
The single man also has his problems. His work leaves him little time for socializing other than business entertaining. Outside of the company, he may have few friends. Yet, Japanese society looks down on late marriages. Anyone who is not married by the time he reaches his 30’s may be considered odd. This explains the prevalence of omiai, or arranged marriages, which account for nearly 60 percent of all marriages in Japan even today.
Big companies frequently move their men around the country from one branch to another. This means pulling up stakes and getting used to new neighbors and environments every two or three years. Although each move is usually accompanied by a promotion and a raise in salary, it could create problems for the family with regard to the children’s schooling or the care of aged parents. But such are the joys and the woes of seniority and lifetime employment in the Japanese big companies.
Work and Religion
Group consciousness and the urge to conform play a significant role in molding the religious attitudes of the Japanese. In order to fit in, one must not be too insistent about one’s beliefs but be tolerant, ready to compromise. It has been said, therefore, that the Japanese sense of morality is based not on right or wrong but on being acceptable or unacceptable.
Thus, in the big companies, a worker is expected to share in rituals such as weddings, funerals, and other functions whether these be Buddhist, Shinto, or Christian. Most men have no qualms of conscience over such perfunctory participation. They have learned to live without personal beliefs and convictions, or have made these subservient to the wishes of their company. Consequently, many men are indifferent about religion. It is difficult for them to think about religious or spiritual matters. They may still observe the rituals and customs handed down from generations past, but they really have no religious belief to speak of.
On the other hand, women, especially mothers, who must singlehandedly care for the children’s scholastic, moral, and religious education, naturally are more drawn to religion. But with them, the tendency is toward the other extreme—the more the better. A young mother expressed what might be the typical religious attitude in a news story in Time magazine: “I owe respect to my ancestors and show it through Buddhism. I’m a Japanese, so I do all the little Shinto rituals. And I thought a Christian marriage would be really pretty. It’s a contradiction, but so what?” According to the national census, while the total population of Japan is 120 million, there are 87 million Buddhists and 89 million Shintoists. Obviously many thought nothing of declaring themselves to be followers of more than one religion.
From our brief consideration of life in a Japanese big company, it is clear that there is much more to it than the obvious benefits that are so admired. The fact is that some authorities feel that such benefits are much exaggerated. Instead, they see signs that all is not well in this idealized land of economic and technological giants. What are these signs, and what is the future of the Japanese miracle?
[Picture on page 8]
All are expected to work long and hard
Japanese Information Center
[Picture on page 10]
Big company functions include weddings
Japanese Information Center