The 100 Hour Japanese Work-Week and One Woman Who Escaped

I was one of those people who wept over Hillary Clinton’s farewell “glass ceiling” speech, and not just because of how the election turned out. It seemed that however way you sliced it, women will have a hard time in the workplace and in modern society and that Clinton’s defeat was symptomatic of a huge, cancerous issue. Sob.

%e9%ad%82

Here on the archipelago, we’re feeling the sharp edge of the blade known as overwork, afflicting both women AND men as they struggle to keep up with the increasingly ruthless culture of corporate Japan. The recent suicide of a 25-year old woman who worked for ad giant Dentsu is just the tip of the iceberg of a phenomenon known as “black companies,” or companies who enforce long working hours and excessive work ethics. This double duty can result in stress-related illnesses, severe depression and worse. In the case of this 25-year old, much worse. Just before her death, the texted her mother that she couldn’t stand work and she couldn’t bear life.
On the other hand, most Japanese – white collar or not, are well aware that clocking in over 100 hours of overtime a month is quite common, and so is not getting paid for that time. Dentsu was raided by Labor ministry investigators earlier this month, and they raked up evidence to show that workers were actually falsifying their overtime records to avoid having to bill the company and cause trouble. Such a mind-set can only exist in a country like Japan, whose finest moment came in the 1970s to 1980s, during the miraculous economic growth period. This was when trading companies gobbled up Manhattan property and car manufacturers kicked Detroit’s ass and a Harvard professor wrote a book called “Japan As No.1.”

“That was the rosiest time in post-war Japanese history,” writes Emiko Inagaki in her bestselling autobiography “Tamashiino Taisha (My Soul Wanted to Quit).” She adds that Japan’s current horrendous work culture that puzzles and even disgusts the rest of the world, is a holdover from that rosy time. “No one has come up with a dream to quite match the dream of the rapid growth era. Working hard and shopping with the money earned and then working hard some more and shopping some more – we loved it. We still love it, and refuse to look for an alternative.”

Inagaki is a former journalist for national news conglomerate Asahi Shimbun, and her book tells how she climbed up Asahi’s mercilessly patriarchal hierarchy rung by bloody rung. The media is the one place in the Japanese corporate world where a woman can even hope to compete with men in the same arena, and according to Inagaki she chose the profession for that very reason. A graduate from one of the nation’s top universities, Inagaki felt that she owed it to herself and her family, to become a financially independent individual. Other women of her generation were apt to work for a few years, get married and withdraw into the home. But for 3 decades, Inagaki plugged away at the job, moving from one department to another, one regional office to another. For the most part, it was a ride. In the book, she writes with loving tribute to the years she gave to Asahi, years that shaped her personality and cemented her resolve.

On the flip side, she was often depressed and prone to binge-shopping. She writes with comic flair of how, on every payday she would sail into her favorite boutiques and pick armloads of posh outfits that she subsequently never wore, how she was turned on by the gushing welcome she got from the salesgirls (“after all, I was an excellent customer!”), basking in the euphoria of buying just about anything she wanted. And it wasn’t just clothing. She loved getting drunk with colleagues and friends at expensive sushi restaurants. She loved riding cabs everywhere. And she was proud of being able to afford the rent on a designer condo when other women her age were struggling to pay for their kids’ school fees. Inagaki was living the Japanese Dream – work like crazy, spend accordingly and to hell with everything else.

At a certain point though, she had to ask herself if this was true happiness. The answer was an uneasy NO. And then Lehman Shock came along in 2008 and partially jolted her out of the earn-spend cycle. “But what really did it for me was 3.11,” she writes. “I vowed to stop spending so much on myself, and I especially wanted to cut down on utility bills.” Inagaki covered Fukushima’s nuclear meltdown, and witnessed first hand the potential side effects of unbridled economic progress. “The Japanese were apt to think that working and earning was the most important priority. But 3.11 showed us that there’s more to life than that, and the revelation can come at any time.” Inagaki decided to use as little electricity as possible, just as a personal experiment. “I would come home, and not turn on the light switch and wait until my eyes got used to the dark.” Pretty soon, she could navigate her way around her home with no lights at all. “I thought: so this is what being truly independent is all about.”

Gradually, the idea dawned on Inagaki that she was free to quit the company. “I had been working for Asahi for 30 years. The idea of leaving scared me a little but more than that, I was exhilarated. Dare I do it? Would I be able to survive?” At this point, Inagaki was 50 years old and single, with nothing to her name but a position in a highly respected company. To cut herself off from this veritable life support system, in a country renowned for discrimination of women (especially unemployed single women) could spell disaster. She wasn’t going out there completely unequipped. Prior to her leaving Asahi, Inagaki had her hair done – in a stylish afro. And she had already weaned herself off the expensive lifestyle and started looking for a smaller, older, much cheaper apartment. She was KonMariing her stuff as well. Out went the expensive, unworn outfits. The designer furniture and decor items. One by one, she pared herself down and came to recognize who she really was, shorn of the invisible corporate armor that had both protected and incarcerated her.

Inagaki now works as an occasional TV commentator and takes on freelance writing assignments. The latter as she writes in the book, pays so little it took her breath away. Back in Asahi, she had been convinced that professional writing was a fairly lucrative gig, but the reality of being an independent freelancer has hit her hard. Still, with no dependants and a cheerful disposition, she can treat her new life as one on-going adventure. She cooks her own food, hand washes her laundry, has no A/C and generally keeps expenses down to about 100,000 yen a month. To her surprise and delight, she is suddenly enormously popular with men of all ages. “Everyone wants to talk to me. The other day, a young photographer asked to take my picture.” She attributes it to the afro and her new, carefree aura. “If there’s any hope for us, it’s to believe that it’s okay to live as an individual, to liberate yourself from working for a company.” With so many Japanese convinced that life begins and ends in an office, her message is vital – a shining light glimpsed at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

When your soul wants to quit, well, it’s time

Abe tells women to “shine,” but, really, he meant “die!”

A post that was meant to to show Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's support for women, due to some bad English usage with a different meaning when read as Japanese, ended up saying, "Hey all you women in Japan, drop dead!"
A post that was meant to to show Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s support for women, due to some bad English usage with a different meaning when read as Japanese, ended up saying, “Hey all you women in Japan, drop dead!”

 

A blog post written by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to show his support for women backfires when people pointed out that the English word “shine” can actually be read as the Japanese word for “drop dead (死ね)!”

The blog was coincidentally released shortly after a scandal in which members of Abe’s political party yelled sexist comments at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly where Your Party member Ayaka Shiomura was giving a speech on the difficulties of women raising children in Tokyo.

As reported in The Daily Beast, the public is demanding the resignation of the members who called out, “Hey you, should hurry up and get married!” and “Can’t you have babies?”

The heckling and slurs all came from the seats of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) faction, which is the ruling party in the Tokyo Assembly and in the nation. The Cabinet Office declined to comment about the incident, saying that they “are not in a position to do so.” However, Prime Minister Abe is definitely in a position to comment. He is not only the leader of Japan, he is also the Director-General—the sosai —of the LDP. It looks like deeply-rooted misogyny is hard to hide.

21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck (A Book Review) by Ms. Kaori Shoji

Usually I try to avoid self-help relationship books like Hepatitis B but the title to this is sort of catchy: 21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck (なぜ日本にはいい男がいないのか 21の理由)

So I picked it up, said yes to writing the review and then the truth sank in: never mind the sucking Japanese men, the book itself is a D.O.A. (Dead On Arrival)

Anything with “21” in the title tells you most of what you need to know about the author, starting with such fundamentals as: 1) He’s probably between 45 and 60 and a lot of his ideas are stuck in the 20th century. 2) He’s probably a he and not a she, so what does he know about how men suck? 3) In 1999, he probably deployed the phrase Y2K more than 500 times in public. Before even cracking open the spine, I feel acute embarassment trickling over me like a faulty showerhead – not just for the author Tomonori Morikawa but for myself, the Japanese publishing industry and the Japanese dating scene in general. If we had all pulled ourselves together before the arrival of the um, century 21, we wouldn’t be floating around in this mess of 21 reasons.

21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck/なぜ日本にはいい男がいないのか-21の理由-
21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck/なぜ日本にはいい男がいないのか-21の理由. Japanese women get blamed too.

 

On the other hand, Mr. Morikawa (58) undoubtedly means well. His good intentions ooze from the pages as does his impressive academic resume (ph.D in political science, graudate from Waseda University and post graduate stints at prestigious US universities etc.). Professor Morikawa now resides and teaches in Oregon. Judging by his back cover photo, he probably bicycles to work, shops organic and his “omiyage (coming-home gift)” of choice on the occasions he returns to Japan are packets of Stumptown coffee. Nice guy, really and most likely an ace political scientist, which is his special field. But when it comes to the relationship issue in post-3.11 Japan, I regret to have to say that the Professor is sadly uninformed and out of his depth. The book is divided into 3 chapters: “It’s the Fault of the Times,” “It’s the Fault of the Men,” and finally “It’s the Fault of the Women.” Clearly, Mr. Morikawa feels that someone or something should take the rap for this sorry state of affairs (no pun intended) but falls short of pointing a decisive finger. In another two decades, 60% of the men in this country could spend their entire lives solo, dying without ever having had a relationship, and Mr. Morikawa (for all his provocative title) doesn’t seem very upset about it. And if he’s waist high in bikini-ed women clamoring for his attention out there in Oregon, he’s certainly keep that under wraps.

“21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck” is written from the viewpoint of a Showa era (1925-1989) man, whose cultural and relationship reference points are mostly western. One of the salient points about “21 Reasons…” is the uncomfortable frequency of the phrase “in Europe and the US” – Mr. Morikawa obviously holds the western standard as sacrosanct, and ignores people like the Chinese, Indians and Africans – now a demographic and economic force to be reckoned with. Among the 21 reasons, he sites that the typical single Japanese male can’t kiss, smells bad and eats too much garlic. Elsewhere on the globe kissing is considered weird, disgusting and inappropriate, and many Turkish women for instance, actually prefer garlic breath. As for the male aroma issue, Mr. Morikawa should try riding on a Moscow subway in July.

The big problem with “21 Reasons…” is that, like a true Show-era “ojisan (uncle)” Mr. Morikawa tries to link a heavily political issue (Japan’s alarming birth rate decline) to the personal and intimate terrain of dating and sex. That such a pipeline does NOT work has been demonstrated by countless Japanese women being totally turned off by countless old-men politicans endorsing sex and pregnancy like it was the 1940s (one of the government slogans of that dark period was: “Bear children and multiply!”). None of those politicians including our present PM, never seem to get that it takes two to make babies and a lot of Japanese men are simply not interested, not ready or ill-equipped to make that sort of commitment. Mr. Morikawa at least, refrains from pinning the blame entirely on the women, but he does preach that once a woman hits 20, her marketability points go way down, along with her chances of encountering a non-smelly/good kisser who’s willing to get married and live happily ever after. According to Mr. Morikawa’s estimate, “Prince Charming on a white horse” comes around only once every 5000-plus new meet-ups. So if a woman had a blind date every single day for 14 years after her 20th birthday, she would be hitting the jackpot sometime after age 34? Gee, thanks for nothing.

The overall tone of “21 Reasons…” is pitched somewhere between midly condescending and mildly concerned – which could get intensely annoying after page 10. While professing to admonish the men by pulling his main conclusions exclusively from interviews with Japanese women locked in various stages of disappointment and frustration, Mr. Morikawa frequently slips on his own banana peels by strewing outdated stereotypical statements to explain the J-Men-Sucks phenomenon: “Japanese women just sit around and wait for a Prince Charming on a white horse to come along. Do they realize the odds of that ever happening?” “It’s imperative for Japanese men to get into good universities to ensure their futures. But it’s not so important for a Japanese woman to over-educate herself.” “Women need to play hard to get, in order to nab a desirable man. Look at the examples of Ginza bar hostesses.” In short, huge chunks of the book are not devoted to analyzing the problems proffered by the title, but given over to entitled, chauvinistic statements urging women to go out there and make themselves available.

Mr. Morikawa does make a sound observation, albeit not a very helpful one: that 10,000 years ago in the Jomon Period, Japanese couples got married at 14, had their first child at 15 and died off at 30. Even in the Edo Period, it was a huge deal if people lived past 45. Until the 1950s, he writes, couples were obligated to spend roughly 15 years together. Now the marriage years form a long, long stretch, compounded by the fact that the Japanese now live for a colossaly long time. “It’s impossible to keep loving the same man for so long,” he sighs. Duh.

So what to do? Make your body odor more acceptable and lay off the cheap booze, advises Mr. Morikawa. Otherwise, the professor doesn’t seem to have a clue.

 

Kaori Shoji writes about movies and movie-makers for The Japan Times and is also a writer for theInternational Herald Tribune and other publications. Well known for her sharp wit, some have likened her to “the Dorothy Parker of Japan.