The world of (Japanese) work

We perceive Japan as a nation of hard-working people who have successfully taken the best ideas of the Western world, engineered their features into new products which they have sold back to the West.

As I survey the trappings of my existence, I see a Canon camera, Sony television, Toshiba travelling lap top, and a Honda motor car (yes, my Honda Accord Euro was made in Japan, not in Thailand, China or the US).

If I can sum up in three words what my Japanese-made items represent to me, they would be ‘performance’, ‘value for money’ and ‘reliability’.  I imagine that my products would have been made by workers steeped in the culture of ‘Just in time’, a system of production that does away with storage of unused inventory, and ‘Kanban’, a demand-driven scheduling system that delivers signals to replenish components required at a particular point along the production chain.

Yes, Japan has been terribly clever over the past several decades.  But at what cost?

Apparently, some employees work so hard that they have died on or from the job.  Examples include a worker who died from a heart attack at the age of 34, having worked a 110 hour week.  Another was a bus driver who had worked more than 3,000 hours in a year without a day off in the 15 days before had a fatal stroke at 37.  A third was a 22-year-old nurse who died of a heart attack after 34 hours of continuous duty five times a month. Just 22 years old.

If ‘karoshi’ or ‘death by overwork’ had become a social problem by the 1980’s, then so had ‘karojisatu’, or suicide resulting from overwork and stress.  In the period 1997 to 2011, compensated cases of karoshi and karojisatsu rose from 47 to 121 and from two to 66, respectively.  Long work hours, heavy workloads, lack of job control, routine and repetitive tasks, interpersonal conflicts, inadequate rewards, employment insecurity, and organizational problems were some of the underlying causes of workers having taken their lives.

The phenomenon of worker suicide has spawned a game of the same name.  At each of the fifty stages of the game, players are presented with a new challenge, the final stage involving a fight with the boss.  The goal of each level of play is – you guessed it – to self-destruct.  And make sure that you have fun while killing yourself.

Japan is not taking the problem of overwork and worker suicide lightly.  Some measures to combat their effects include:

• Reducing working hours and overwork.
• Providing adequate medical support and treatment of work-related stress.
• Encouraging dialogue between workers and management to implement healthy and efficient work practices and places.

Such measures, however, take a while to gain traction.  In the interim, what does the Japanese worker do to manage the effects of working too hard?


Having a snooze is the obvious solution.  And what better place to do that than on a train?

As I travelled the Tokyo metro, I noticed that most of my somnolent companions were in the seated position although I did catch a few grabbing a bit of shuteye while standing up.  I have read that some workers will resort to sleeping on train floors, but am a bit sceptical about this; there is little enough floor space available on a peak hour train for standing, let alone lying down.

Of course, there is nothing remarkable about falling asleep on a commuter train.  I have given in to the Sandman on Sydney’s City Rail network on more than one occasion, usually as a result of the twin effects of the train’s rhythm and the amount of alcohol imbibed during a long lunch.  My state of slumber has occurred after lunch time and usually towards evening.  And that’s where I found an interesting variation in Japan: many workers slip into slumber during the morning peak.

Plausible explanations abound for this state of early morning drowsiness: a young child unable to sleep through the night, a late night on the town, the cumulative effect of a weeks’ worth of hour-long commutes, overheated trains.

But is it enough to power-nap on the train?  Apparently not.

Being asleep at work and, by extension, on trains, is a statement about how hard a person works and is a measure of respect for that person.  There is no shame in falling asleep at work.  This is the mark of an employee who works so hard that they have no time to sleep at home and must therefore sleep at work.  It is both Legitimate and Good. There is even a word for being asleep at work, ‘inemuri’, which means ‘sleeping while present’. And it comes with a set of rules:

• The (sleeping) worker must sit up and look engaged, ready to wake up at any moment and do something useful.
• If you’re the boss, sleeping at work is a sign of confidence as it shows that the company can’t do without you.

Sleeping at work is not a practice that is exclusive to Japan.  A couple of weeks ago, my husband remarked that he’d passed an employee in another section of the office who was fast asleep at his desk at lunch time.  I too have succumbed while at work.

My first job out of university was as a town planning assistant at a large Cape Town local authority.  My desk was partly obscured by a floor to ceiling partition, visible only to a couple of other employees who had cause to pass my space en route to theirs.

My lunchtime ritual involved a half hour walk around a few city blocks followed by a quick snack of my pre-packed lunch and a  half-hour nap on the floor behind my desk, my body contorted to minimise detection and with half an ear on alert for a superior’s footfall.

I wasn’t the only one.  The only reason I knew about my co-conspirator in sleep was because his feet protruded from under the table he used as camouflage.

Unlike our Japanese counterparts, there was no way that we would have dared fallen asleep sitting at our desks.  That would have been to invite firm rebuke for napping on company time, irrespective of how much or, in our cases, how little work we had to do.  And while dozing on the job wasn’t a sackable offence (the  only way to guarantee that fate was to be caught with one’s hand in the till), it wasn’t something that was going to help ones’ campaign to climb the corporate ladder either.

If anyone saw us, they never said anything.

But I always wondered why I never got that promotion I applied for.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Big brother is not watching you

I regard Sydney as a reasonably safe place.  In public I do tend to keep my handbag either tucked under my arm, or with its contents well hidden from view, but that’s about as much as I feel compelled to do to protect my belongings.

It doesn’t surprise me to see that my city ranks number 12 on a list of the top 15 safest cities in the world.  It surprises me even less that Tokyo is number one on this list.

Japan is well-known for its high level of safety and low levels of crime, making it an attractive destination especially for those travelling alone or with children.  Violent crimes and murders are rare and terrorist acts almost unheard of.  Respect for human rights is high and stringent laws prohibit the possession of firearms.

The 2010 Global Peace Index (GPI) compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) ranked Japan as the third safest place in the world, behind New Zealand and Iceland, countries with much smaller populations than Japan.

In addition to a superior level of safety and security, the general honesty in Japanese society is evident from the number and type of items handed in at Lost and Found counters in the Tokyo Metropolitan area.  In 2008, more than two million items were handed in, among which were umbrellas, clothing, wallets, ID cards and mobile phones.  The amount of cash among the lost property totaled 2.7 billion yen. [1]

We had barely left the airport terminal before evidence of this honesty manifested itself.  When handing over a banknote for a purchase in any other country, one can expect rounding to occur, usually in an upwards direction, before receiving one’s change.  Japan is not like that.  Expect not only to receive change, but to receive the exact amount down to the last yen.  Your wallet will soon be at risk of bursting with an accumulation of unwanted coin.

This environment seems to have fostered a relaxed attitude in locals towards personal safety and the security of their possessions.  In one of the busiest stations in the world, Shinjuku, we regularly travelled on the escalators behind people whose wallets were hanging out of their back pockets or whose backpacks were open for all to inspect the contents within.

And it didn’t stop there.


These bags on a suburban train remained unattended for a full five minutes while their owner was occupied in the toilet.  In some parts of the world, we would have hastily made for the other end of the train or, worse, tried to force a door and take our chances by hurling ourselves from the train before it blew up.  Of course, no such thing was going to happen here.  And the only people paying any attention to the bags were us.


Another example of temporary “bag abandonment”, this time in Starbucks at Matsumoto Station.  Again, the owners had disappeared either to relieve themselves or order a coffee.  Their possessions didn’t warrant a second glance.  Other than from us.


The tasting room of a saké brewery in Yudanaka, the bottles lined up on the counter for a self-administered free tasting.  We could drink as much as we wanted of the available range.  And we did.  The sales person was discreetly occupied in another room, available only when we were ready to make a purchase.  Even the expensive stuff in the cabinet was unsecured.

There is a down side to coming from one of the safest countries in the world, however.  When Japanese travel abroad, their lack of situational awareness can make them easy targets.

In the first few months of 2013, 10 Japanese died in an Algerian hostage crisis, three Japanese tourists were killed in February in a vehicle and knife attack in Guam, while two weeks later, four Japanese were among 19 tourists who died in a balloon crash in Luxor, Egypt.

An article in (the Japanese) Weekly Playboy of 25 March 2013 warned against taking anything for granted abroad and cautioned travellers to hide their wallets and credit cards, and above all to stifle their sympathy for animals and children who could potentially cause them harm.

Whatever happens to Japanese travellers abroad – and I don’t doubt that they’re savvy enough to become street smart – there is nowhere I’ve been in all my years of travel where the level of safety is anywhere near that found in Japan.

Well, to be fair…..perhaps New Zealand.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Can gender discrimination stop bad behaviour?


The first time I saw this sign at a Tokyo metro station, I blinked a couple of times.  Back home, this would be cause for more than just raised eyebrows.  A zealous upholder of equal opportunity principles might report the perpetrator for breach of the law.  Barristers would be briefed and several months, perhaps years later, the appeal would be heard – and the case won – and the offending sign scrubbed from the train platform and eventually living memory.

And then the carriage appeared.


Women only carriages?  What?  Would M be prevented from joining me in a carriage designated for “Women only”?

Apparently, the need to provide a safe haven for female travellers on major city subways arose in response to their treatment at the hands of male predators.  These subway offenders – known as “chikan” (molester or pervert) – were unable to keep their hands to themselves on crowded trains, particularly during rush hour, making a nuisance of themselves to women by leaning, pushing and groping.

A 2004 survey conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police and East Japan Railway company showed that nearly 64% of Japanese women in their twenties and thirties had been groped on trains, subways or transit stations in Tokyo, a threefold increase in reported cases of groping over the previous eight years.  Authorities had been unable to control this behaviour with awareness campaigns and stricter penalties, as trains are too crowded to identify the perpetrators and victims are often too ashamed to come forward and complain.  This prompted Tokyo-based services to introduce women only carriages in 2005.[1]   Other cities followed suit.

Of course, men who don’t grope women might be forgiven for feeling a little peeved by this gender bias on trains, particularly if they could otherwise travel more comfortably during peak hour (women only carriages can be less crowded than mixed carriages).

Indeed, some Japanese men don’t believe that women-only carriages solve the groping problem. A few years ago, some even banded together to oppose the separate carriages, led by a Tokyo office worker and boasting about 300 members who claimed that they weren’t effective and smacked of gender discrimination…against men.

Well, yes, I suppose they do discriminate.  But a 2009 survey found that 40% of Japanese thought that “men only” carriages were necessary, even if the reasons for having them were not made clear. [2]

While I could not find more recent information as to whether this movement gained any traction with the authorities, I did turn up a curious reaction to the issue of denying “chikan” their lust for groping: a train café in Tokyo where men can indulge their inner letch.  “Services” are carried out in a room refurbished to look like the inside of a carriage on Tokyo’s Yamonote line and patrons are allowed to fondle young women standing at strategic points.  The club, with 4000 members, claims to be fighting the crime of molestation by getting chikan off the streets.[3] 

Whether this outlet for male molesters has reduced the incidence of groping remains untested, if anything, such activity can only reinforce inappropriate behaviour among men.

So are measures targeted at reducing molestation of women on trains succeeding?

Apparently, despite continuing media awareness, heftier fines and the provision of separate carriages for women, the incidence of groping continues.[4]

It is all too easy for most offenders to get away with it on crowded trains where surveillance is low.  On the other hand, being caught brought such shame to one molester that he exacted the highest price of himself.

So was M prevented from boarding a female only carriage?  As it turned out, no.  Many foreign men unwittingly hop aboard “women only” carriages during rush hour without realising their purpose.  And most Japanese women cut them some slack for being ignorant.

Which is not to say that men can’t legally travel in women only carriages.  Far from it; but as with so many things in Japan, there is a polite expectation that male passengers co-operate and use their discretion by refraining from boarding carriages designated for women only.[5]

From thereon in, we decided to do likewise.

Even if it meant standing for a short period.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Shinkansen spotting


Shinkansen 700 series, Tokyo Station

It didn’t take long for me to become seduced by shinkansen, Japan’s version of high-speed rail.  In fact, I couldn’t have been happier with our hotel in Hiroshima, located directly above the railway station and providing an unobstructed view of shinkansen movements below.

The name shinkansen means “new trunk line”.  These trains run on a dedicated standard gauge track which was purpose-built for the service, powered by an overhead electricity supply.  The trains operate at speeds of up to 300km per hour, using tunnels and viaducts to cut through and over obstacles rather than around them.[1]  They take about three and a half minutes to slow down before stopping.

The reason for building a high-speed rail network in Japan was increasing congestion in the densely populated Tokyo-Osaka corridor, where some 45 million people were living immediately after World War 2.


Shinkansen O series (Osaka Railway Museum)

The first shinkansen service – indeed the first high-speed rail service in the world – opened on 1 October 1964 between Tokyo and Osaka, just in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games.


The closest I’ll ever come to sitting in the driver’s compartment of a shinkansen (O series, Osaka Railway Museum)

The service became an instant success and has since been extended throughout Honshu and the northern part of Kyushu, with plans underway to link to Hokkaido.   As of November 2010, 4.9 billion people had travelled on these trains.[2]

The service is one of the most reliable in the world, with departures and arrivals occurring within 6 seconds of scheduled times.

As with so many things in Japan, there are certain protocols and rules that go along with travelling on a shinkansen.

The first is lining up in the correct place.


The signs on the platform show the length of train and where your carriage will stop in relation to the location of your pre-booked seat (if you have one).  This is where you join the queue.  And when the train stops, the door of your carriage will open at that very spot on the platform marked by the sign.

According to Japan Rail regulations, each traveller is allowed to bring up to two pieces of luggage (excluding small bags), with each piece not weighing more than 30kg and not measuring more than 250cm in width and depth, with length not exceeding 200cm.  If anything, this allowance seems more generous than I observed the capacity of the overhead space to be able to accommodate.  Once this fills up, the alternative is a small space behind the last row of seats where bags can and do pile up quickly..

Fortunately, common sense – and several planned stops – dictated that we travelled light.  We learned our lesson well all those years ago dragging 60kg of luggage on and off European trains.

Good manners are de rigeur and include refraining from stowing your luggage in the aisles, talking quietly, reclining your seat gently so as not to inconvenience the person behind you, and setting your mobile phone to silent mode.  You can SMS, email and web surf to your heart’s content.  You will probably lose signal in a tunnel, of course.

When you think of it, none of the above protocols is exactly onerous and it makes for a much more pleasant trip for everyone.

So what is the shinkansen experience like?  Well, it’s fast.  Very fast.  And very smooth.  The only time you might notice a slight “adjustment” is when another shinkansen passes alongside.  Even entering and exiting tunnels is seamless.

Seats in ordinary class are generally in 3X2 configuration, comfortable and with plenty of leg room.  A smiling woman pushes a food cart up and down the aisle; we were not tempted by the offer, but were more intrigued with her uniform which would easily have passed muster on Tokyo’s Takeshite-Dori of a Sunday morning.

The trains are squeaky clean, both on the inside and outside.  The exteriors are blissfully clear of graffiti, one of the defining characteristics of Sydney trains.  Maybe the shinkansen travel too fast and don’t stop long enough for any latent Japanese graffiti artists to point a spray can at them?

Upcoming destinations and announcements are repeated in English, so there is no excuse to overstay your stop, even though it’s often tempting to do so.  On the other hand, because Shinkansen work so closely to their scheduled times, you will miss your train if you’re late.

However, there is always the next one.

You may only have to wait as long as five minutes.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.