As I have said previously, there are many things to admire about Japanese culture, and quite a few things not to admire as well. I have always strove, in this blog and elsewhere, to look at Japan with an unflinching lack of bias – acknowledging the good, acknowledging the cultural differences that are legitimately morally relative, and also calling out the unquestionably dark sides of Japanese culture that sometimes rear their heads.
Honestly, though I hear it’s recently changing, the biggest thing about Japanese culture that actually deters me from living there is its workplace environment. They are a culture that tends to value uniformity and teamwork above individual contributions. That, in itself, is one of those things that I think are legitimately morally relative, and that’s not really what I’m criticizing. I wouldn’t want to work at a company like that, but my culture is different. I hear some Japanese companies are taking a more western approach, and I applaud that, while at the same time recognizing that I’m applauding it because it’s more inline with my culture.
But what I don’t like are “black companies”. These are companies that, to put it bluntly, abuse their workers. Force them to work long hours, accept no excuses for being late, fire people for getting a snack… basically treating them as feudal slaves with the veneer of modernity. The suicide rate in Japan is troubling, and at least a portion of that is people who are overworked so badly that they simply can’t hold up under the pressure anymore.
What prompted this observation was finding out that there were some companies that forced people to work through Typhoon Hagibis when it roared through the Tokyo metro area. The trains were shut down, I’m guessing people were told to shelter in place or find somewhere inland to go, essential services were disrupted. There were even a few people killed and injured. It was, by all accounts, a pretty major hurricane, and Japan will be spending quite a bit of time and money recovering from it. A direct hit on one of the largest cities in the world is not something to take lightly.
And yet, even Hagibis was not enough to excuse some people from work.
This is an aspect of Japanese culture that, frankly, disgusts me. One can certainly argue the merits of long hours and some of the other aspects of the Japanese corporate culture that are questionable but not necessarily cruel. But forcing your employees to come to work in the middle of a typhoon? I don’t care who you are or what culture you’re from, that’s not excusable.
But the problem, as I see it, is that Japanese people accept this. If people simply didn’t work for black companies, there wouldn’t be any more black companies. But instead, people feel an obligation, cultural or otherwise, to continue working for the company that is mistreating them so badly. I’m not sure if it’s because of the post-war idea that one works for the same company for life, or if it’s just the Japanese cultural tendency not to make waves, but the fact that this kind of thing keeps happening is a major black mark on Japanese culture, and is a part of the darkness that makes me think twice about visiting or living there.
And this problem will be exacerbated by the birthrate decline. In a few years, there will not be enough people to fill all of the jobs that are needed by Japanese countries. Foreigners, specially western foreigners, will not put up with that kind of environment, and those that are entering the workplace will slowly begin to realize that they are more valuable to the company than the company is to them. And at that point, the apocalypse will come for “black companies’. And not a moment too soon.