Are Japanese Offices Really That Horrible?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jacob asked:

I was watching the Netflix release of Aggresuko, which chronicles the life of a modern Japanese office lady. Thought the series her boss, who is represented as an overweight pig, makes her life miserable and demeaning. In a lot of ways he representing the old guard of sexually harassing, tyrannical, ball busting dinosaurs that are upper management that I have seen in numerous anime over the decades. In a latter episode he apologizes to the main character and tries to justify his actions that when he entered the workforce back in the late 1980's his bosses were even worse and that it is difficult to change in this modern work environment. My question is the modern Japanese office workers getting any better? Are the old guard of upper management changing to be closer to what is to be expected of a more fair and balanced modern work force and relations? Or have things not really changed much since the 1980's with the exception of technology?

Japanese office life can be extremely difficult. There's a deep-seated culture of constantly having to prove your loyalty by staying later than everyone else, of being ashamed to be the first one to leave, and of taking as little time off of work as possible.

If you get all of your mental images about Japanese office life from older anime, movies and TV shows, quite a few things have changed quite a bit since the 80s. The days where people could smoke at their desks are long gone -- designated smoking areas (usually with separate ventilation systems) are now pretty much everywhere except for restaurants.

Women have made great strides in the workforce. Equal gender opportunity laws were passed and strengthened, and the shrinking Japanese labor force has provided ambitious women a lot of opportunities that didn't exist in the past. Women now make up 43% of the work force (up from 36% in 1986). Overt sexism and sexual harassment have also been addressed to varying degrees (though that issue is far from solved). There is still a glass ceiling, and few women manage to climb very far up the corporate ladder.

Aggretsuko very closely mirrors everything I've heard about the struggles of the "OL" or "office lady". OL are basically glorified secretary positions, and all too often, comprise the only women working for entire departments, or even entire companies. (If it seems a little bit over-the-top miserable to be real... well, have you seen @black9arrows' Twitter OL webcomic?) OL are given menial tasks, are regularly asked to fetch tea/coffee for the men in charge, and even have uniforms. (The guys pretty much all just wear suits... which also is a uniform in a way.)

OL positions are typically dead-end, and with it comes the expectation that you'll eventually marry a guy and quit your job to make babies. Expectations are kept low, and the jobs are kept tedious. Nobody seems to expect equality. Older and more conservative industries tend to be more like this. For all of the anime industry's problems, it is a lot more progressive of a place to work. Several major anime studios and producers have had female CEOs and executives over the years, and within the ranks of production women are taking more and more of a place of prominence. (Things are still far from equal, even there.)

Sexism aside, other aspects of Japanese office life have actually gotten worse. The shrinking labor market means that companies are hiring fewer people and expecting them to work harder. Every year there's a spate of suicides by office workers that just can't take the overtime anymore. While overtime is seldom officially made mandatory, it's often made clear that it's not optional -- you simply have to get the work done and there aren't enough hours in the day. Many employees intentionally don't even log their overtime hours so as not to get their department in trouble.

The problem has gotten so bad, journalists and rights activists have started publicly shaming companies that push their employees to the breaking point. Last year the list of so-called "black companies" included public broadcaster NHK, Panasonic, as well as several construction companies, a courier company, a supermarket chain and a pharmaceutical company. In 2016, the award went to Dentsu, the famous advertising giant that once owned Geneon. Many anime studios are starting to get the reputation of being "black companies" too.

Bullying of junior employees by superiors can be severe as well. Restaurant chain Watami won the Black Company Award two years in a row after a well-publicized employee suicide. One manager reported regularly working from 7am to midnight with almost no breaks -- literally working 119 hour weeks. It was reported that the CEO would leave messages on employee paycheck envelopes like, "you should reflect on your sales this month by killing yourself." (The CEO refused to meet with or apologize to the suicide victim's family until they took him to court.)

Not all Japanese companies are abusive sweatshops, but so many of them are that it's becoming increasingly clear that major reforms are needed. However, no government-led attempts to curb this culture of overwork have really accomplished much. A lot of anime fans dream of one day living and working in Japan, but this is one aspect of life there that most Westerners just can't handle.


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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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