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Power Harassment in Japan

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Every Monday, my family and I sit around the TV and watch スカッとジャパン.  スカッとする roughly means to feel refreshed or exhilarated.  It can also refer to the feeling you get when someone gets their come-uppings, so to speak.  So there are numerous stories of a bad boss treating their employees badly and then their fall from grace.  Some of the stories are pretty outrageous, ranging from bosses lying through their teeth to protect their ego to bosses that insult their subordinates in front of clients.

Normally such stories would be hard to believe, but after having worked in Japan for a good amount of time, I can totally see things like this happening at a company.  I hear from students on a regular basis on how difficult their boss can be, and how much they hate their boss.  It really depends on what kind of company you are working for, but power harassment has become a bigger problem in Japan.  Or, it might have always been a problem, but there has been simply more reporting of it.

Japan has been in an economic malaise for a while.  The 90s were called the lost decade, but the 21st century is not much better.  The domestic market is continually shrinking and Japan is having a tough time globalizing its economy.  This lack of growth combined with overall bad worker efficiency has caused senior management to put pressure on management to perform better, and they in turn have started to apply pressure on their subordinates.  Some managers have obviously started to take this too far.

Tales from the Front

A friend of mine used to work at a boiler room type place selling forex (foreign exchange) investments.  One of his co-workers made a mistake and left a trade open over night.  It cost the company a healthy amount of money.  The boss was so angry that he belittled the co-worker in front of everyone and made the co-worker eat by himself at lunch for the next month.

I’ve personally seen staff be belittled in front of the whole office.  One of my managers at a previous job yelled at a co-worker for a whole hour in front of the whole office.  It was terrible because we all had to keep working because it was a busy week and we had to keep going.

My friend was planning to move back to Australia with his girlfriend.  His girlfriend told her company 4 months before she left that she was leaving.  Her boss was furious and stopped talking to her or acknowledging her.  Her co-workers followed suit and she was soon isolated from the group.  She ended up quitting that job and working another one temporarily before she left.

Risk Factors for Power Harassment

In 2012, there was an official survey conducted to research why power harassment had become such a problem.  A recent paper by the Japan Institute of Labour Policy and Training cited many reasons for this.  Some of the top 3 were “no communication between staff and subordinates”, “workplaces with a lot of overtime / hard to take vacation” and “workplaces that have little or no tolerance for mistakes.”

You might be wondering how managers can get away with some of the above.  In America, most people would have folded up shop and left for another company.  In fact, most Americans spend just over 4 years at a particular job before moving on.  Meaning that if they have a bad boss that is running the company into the ground, they usually jump ship.

But that is not the case in Japan.  Job liquidity, the ability to jump between jobs, just isn’t as good.  Employers and employees still want a life-long relationship.  The problem is bosses have started to abuse this relationship.  You only have to watch Hanazawa Naoki to see a dramatization of an extreme case of office politics gone haywire.

The Road Ahead

I’m always optimistic about Japan, because I know of a good number of companies that have great people with great managers.  One of my recent students started his own company and works very hard to make sure they stay healthy and productive.  He practically forced one of his employees to take 2 weeks off in order to lose weight and get in shape because his doctor told him that he was cutting his life short.

A lot of my Japanese friends have either switched to freelance or have become public servants in order to avoid monster bosses.  This seems to be the way the average Joe is able to escape a power harassment situation.

In general though, the labor market needs to be more fluid.  The labor market is still very much lockstep, and completely inflexible.  This is a bit shocking when you think of all the money that is left on the table that could be gained simply by bending the norms a bit.

One of my friends that quit his job in January, but the company wasn’t going to replace him until April when they usually do the recruiting.  So for his last month at his job, he went to work, got paid, but literally did nothing.  They had already assigned his work to another co-worker who was being overworked to the bone at that point.   They didn’t bring in a new employee for my friend to train and hand over the work to.  They just had him sit there until his new job started.

Have you Experienced Harassment?

If you feel like you are seriously being harassed or would like to support those that are, the General Union is always there.  They have fees based on income and have done a lot of good for English teachers here in Japan.  If you are someone who has been in Japan in awhile or plan on staying awhile they are worth the investment.  Even if you are here for a short time, the dues go to making serious long-lasting changes to working conditions here.

I’d also love to hear about any stories you have about power harassment in the workplace.  Let us know about them in the comments.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Austin December 19, 2016, 2:34 am

    The working environment in Japan is one of the things that has me most wary about ever committing to moving there, and why I probably won’t without a good reason. However, most of these cases I hear about (which has been quite a number) seem to be regarding blue-collar desk jobs. Do you know how or if these situations of overwork and power harassment are present in other occupations (e.g. rescue workers, teaching, drivers for taxis and delivery companies, etc etc etc)?

    • Clayton MacKnight December 20, 2016, 12:42 pm

      Teaching conditions vary widely depending on where you are teaching. You could be completely overworked to the bone (and be paid fairly well for it) or teach at a good pace and be paid peanuts. Um, the handful of taxi drivers I know (who are all over 60 or immigrants :)) seem to have a decent job with okay bosses. They tend to get beaten down by the ‘bosses’ that jump in their car though. One of my friends flat out doesn’t pick up any women under 30. He pretends he doesn’t see them.

      The real problem is that it is a complete roll of the dice. Sometimes you will have a great manager, get along with them well and then they will get promoted up and out and you get handed a real dudder that should never had been hired. And since nobody gets fired in Japan, they just kind of get stuck there. That is why the efficiency here is so ridiculously low. If someone is terrible at their job, you need to get them out of it. It’s good for both company and the employee (I mean within reason.)

      You can find salvation in some innovative companies like Panasonic, who has a bell that goes off at 6pm every day if you are not doing something critically important that can’t be immediately stopped, you HAVE to go home. Or you can work freelance, and be your own boss. There are plenty of options to avoid the bad boss trap.

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