Labor Problems in Japan

FILE - In this March 29, 2013 file photo, people cross a street in Tokyo. Legislation that will be submitted during the parliamentary session that began Jan. 26, 2015 aims to ensure workers get the rest they need. In a break with past practice, it will become the legal responsibility of employers to ensure workers take their holidays. Japan has been studying such legislation for years. There has been more impetus for change since 2012 as a consensus developed that the health, social and productivity costs of Japan’s extreme work ethic were too high. Part of the problem has been that many people fear resentment from co-workers if they take days off, a real concern in a conformist culture that values harmony. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama, FIle)

Since it’s Labor Day Weekend here in the states I thought I’d examine the problems in the Japanese workforce.  This’ll be something of a cultural post and might be old news to some, but it’s something that is interesting about Japanese culture.  You can tell a lot about a culture through their various forms of entertainment, and the study of Japanese cultural practices can help you understand certain aspects of anime.  You might be thinking this is going to be a boring post, but it’s something that effects anime and manga in pretty profound ways.  If you’re really upset about the subject matter though, Ill throw in a joke or two and links to some good shows.  Only if you’re good.  Without further ado, let’s jump into the Japanese labor force.

It’s pretty grim.

For those of us that watch anime, or read manga the typical Japanese worker looks like a major workaholic at first glance.  This is somewhat untrue as the Japanese office worker (salaryman) is most likely no more eager to go to work than you are when you shuffle out the door.  The key difference is the amount of stress placed on “company loyalty”, and in some cases the ever present threat of performance based pay.  These men and women typically take less time off than westerners, not out of love for the company but fear of being seen as disloyal to the company.  This is especially true in those performance based pay systems I mentioned earlier.  Imagine that you leave for two weeks to take it easy, and in your absence that weasel Tarou is outshining you and hasn’t taken any time off this year.  When the periodical review comes up, who do you think is getting that promotion or raise?  That’s right, that sneaky rat bastard Tarou.

Fuck that guy, seriously.

This problem seems to be a running gag in some anime, while others treat it like a simple facts of life. It’s the latter that strikes me as strange, but that might just be due to my American sensibilities.  To give an example of this, the recent comedy anime “Himouto! Umaru-chan” features an older brother character that is frequently having to board the last train (around 11 PM) due to his work hours.  His sister (who’s hilarious) never seems distressed about his lateness, and finds his bedtime of 12 AM perfectly normal.  Maybe it’s because work and school start a little later for them, but I have to believe many workers are forcing themselves out of bed to impress the boss.  Like that sneaky shit-head Tarou.

Yeah! Fuck that guy!

Low birth rate is one of the major factors in the need for these ridiculous hours.  As the pool of potential employees grows smaller by the year, the companies of Japan are forced to demand more through incentives and threats.  You can probably imagine that if you work 13 hour days, followed by a trip to the bar with your boss, your desire to go cruising for a mate is trumped by your need for sleep.  Many have speculated that this is precisely why the birth rate has declined, making the problem a vicious circle.  Many more have speculated this is why Japanese citizens (mostly male) are often emotionally attached to virtual or fictional characters from anime and video games.  It’s kind of sad to think about, but a valid hypothesis nonetheless.  On a lighter note, hey fellas there are girls without attachments in Japan and a need for new blood in the country.  Break out those Japanese books and get to learning!  It’s just a joke, put the pitch forks down.

Still with all the kimono clad ladies, why not pick up Japanese?

Don’t believe me about the overworked/romance-deprived aspect of Japanese labor?  Check out “Makuranodanshi”, a recent show that is in first person perspective featuring different guys for you to sleep next to.  Yeah that show exists, as do a plethora of games and manga aimed at the lonely masses of Japan, but now we’re off topic.  The point is that Japan’s low birthrate combined with unrealistic expectations by their corporations are eroding away their own potential workforce.  The Japanese government aren’t oblivious to this, and have even taken steps to try to mitigate it.  According to “The Guardian” earlier this year, a government mandate telling employers that their employees have to take at least 5 days of paid vacation a year was put forth.  This is a hell-of-a-lot more than they were using otherwise, and will hopefully put a dent in the problem.  There are even some in Japan that call for immigration of foreign workers to help with these problems, but those plans were shut down.

I’d like to think all Japanese government meetings look like this.

People who see the “overworked salaryman” as a troupe in anime are correct, however they must also realize it’s a grim reality for many Japanese citizens.  It is in this way that we see that this cultural reality of Japan bleeds into their entertainment media.  From shows like SHIROBAKO where the show is about Japanese office life, to Black Lagoon where the lead character is shaped by his time as a Japanese salaryman, the anime world reflects the feelings of its creators on the issue.  It’s not an issue that will be resolved overnight, but it will be interesting to see the outcome and what (if any) role the anime industry will play in its possible resolution.  As for immigration, I’ll admit to being hopeful for that possibility.  Hopefully the day will come when Japan allows dual citizenship, because on that day I’ll have my bags packed for the land of the rising sun.

 Arigatō my fellow BrOtaku!

Web Sources:

The Japan Times “Japan’s ‘no immigration principle’ looking as solid as ever” – Chris Burgess

The Guardian “Clocking off: Japan calls time on long-hours work culture” – Justin McCurry

CNN Money “Pity Japan’s salaryman: Inside a brutal 80-hour workweek” – Charles Riley

Photo Sources:

Grim : Tarou 1 : Tarou 2 : Kimono : Cat Girls

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About the author


A gamer, otaku, and booze enthusiast. I pursue writing for the love of my interests, and the joy of sharing them with others. I am currently studying Journalism at my local community college.

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