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.


And would you like wrapping with that?


Where gift wrapping in the West appears to be a random affair, rules and customs govern the way a product is wrapped in Japan.

Colour and style of wrapping determine the symbolism of the contents.  For example, red connotes strong positive emotions whereas pink, orange and red and white together suggest happiness.  Paradoxically, white is a common colour for brides… well as at funerals.  One of my favourite colours, purple, is indicative of privilege, wealth and nobility.

An odd number of pleats in wrapping symbolises joy, while combining two different materials reflects the yin-yang that represent the interconnected and interdependent forces of the natural world.  Asymmetry is common and is considered more visually appealing in Japanese culture.

There are two main gift wrapping techniques:

  • Tsutsumi or Origata, and
  •  Furoshiki.

The first method almost exclusively uses paper to wrap packages.  The paper – which can be handmade – is never cut, but pleated, folded and tied.  It may be simple or complex, but in all cases results in something beautiful to behold.

The aim of this method of wrapping is not to hide the gift, but to enhance its shape and hint at the contents.  For example, high quality tea leaves are often given as a present in Japan.  When wrapping black tea, red paper inserted in a slit on the top of the package, then overlaid with a film, provides a glimpse into what is inside the package.

Paper wrapping, however, has its downside.

In 1992, Japanese urban residents threw away roughly 37.6 million tonnes of garbage or more than 1.1 kg per head per day, a large part of which was generated by an excessive amount of wrapping.  It’s not hard to understand where this is coming from.  As an example, gift cartons of biscuits may be individually wrapped inside their boxes, tucked in corrugated papers inside a plastic bag in a tin or box, covered with wrapping paper and then presented in a shopping bag.  Basic grocery items like fruits, even single carrots, often come individually wrapped in cellophane.

Furoshiki (which means ‘bath spread’) is a technique of wrapping a gift with fabric.  It dates back to feudal times – late 12th to early 17th Century – when this style was used for carrying clothes to the bathhouse.  Merchants adopted the style to carry, protect and enhance the appearance of gifts and today furoshiki is popular for birthdays, weddings or everyday shopping.

Due to its flexibility, furoshiki is suited to various shapes and sizes of packages.  And because it is cloth based, it can be recycled for future use.  This attribute has made it very popular with the Japanese Ministry of Environment which has been keen to find creative ways of tackling the mountains of waste arising from used wrapping.

The magnitude of the problem – and the opportunity to solve it – are demonstrated thus: using a furoshiki instead of a 10-gram polyethylene plastic bag prevents 61 grams of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere, making the reusable furoshiki a winner in the battle against climate change.  Apart from its wrapping function, furoshiki cloths also have decorative qualities and can be used as wall hangings or cushion covers.

Notwithstanding these laudable attributes, furoshiki wrapping is not yet a common sight in Japan.  However, it appears to be gaining some traction with younger people for whom both environmental and fashion considerations are important.[1]

At various points along the way, we put the passion for gift wrapping to the test.

Beneath this wrapping lies a humble packet of sweets.IMG_3961

The contents of this pretty plastic bag….


……include a small foil sachet of bouillon, a metal container into which the bouillon can be decanted and the vendor’s business card.


I don’t often walk past the chocolate counter without at least eyeballing the display.  This box of chocolates was wrapped in a single sheet of paper with several folds, secured with a piece of sticky tape…..


…..then dropped into this carry bag.


All this wrapping for a $5 box of chocolates??  Is it really worth it?  Do the chocolates, packet of sweets and bouillon taste any different for having been presented in this way?

While green shoots may be appearing in the bid to drive down environmental waste from wrappings, from our brief observations Japan still has a long way to go.


© 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.

A pile of junk or a global treasure?

We had booked our flights to Japan almost nine months in advance.

It was only thanks to our alert travel agent, Daisuke Mizukoshi, of Pitt Travel in Sydney, that we discovered that our original itinerary would have meant travelling during one of the busiest times of the year: Golden Week.

Dai advised us to reconsider our travel plans to avoid the two weekends of Golden Week.  That was unless we were happy to stand for hours on trains.  We were not.

As we watched Kyoto fill up with visitors two days before the start of the first weekend, we were relieved to know that we would soon be in Nagasaki.  Even if it meant spending the day getting there, using two shinkansens and a local train for the last leg to Nagasaki.

For most visitors, Nagasaki is synonymous with the dropping of the second – and much larger – atomic bomb on a Japanese city on 9 August 1945.  And while one cannot visit Nagasaki without looking in on the affected sites and memorials to the devastation wreaked by the dropping of Fat Man, there is much more to this city and its environs than reminders of World War Two.

For much of its history, Nagasaki was Japan’s only link to the outside world, playing a significant role in Japan’s development as a modern nation.  Europeans began settling in the area from the mid sixteenth century and by 1570, Nagasaki was an active trading port with first Portuguese, then Dutch traders and finally British entrepreneurs making their mark.  Luckily, much of this European influence survived the atomic blast and evidence of its presence can be seen in the reclaimed island of Dejima and the restored buildings of the Dutch Slope.

But fine as these European accented treasures of the past are, it is on a rather more unusual piece of potential heritage that I wish to focus.  And you can find it on an island in the East China Sea about 40 minutes by boat from Nagasaki.


Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island, is thus named for its outline when viewed from a distance.

The island’s real name is Hashima and its primary purpose was to harvest coal from underground mines.

The Hashima mine commenced operations in 1887 and closed in 1974. By 1916, the island’s population had reached 3,000 and the first of many reinforced concrete apartment blocks was built to address the shortage of housing space as well as to withstand cyclone damage.

Larger concrete apartment buildings followed suit, resulting in 30 such structures being crammed on the island.

Wartime demand for coal saw production peak at 410,000 tons in 1941.  The war effort was assisted by the forced participation of Korean and Chinese labourers, many of whom died as a result of harsh conditions and insufficient rations.  By the close of World War Two, 1,300 labourers had died on the island, some in mining related accidents and others from illnesses related to exhaustion and malnutrition.

After the war, production continued apace forging the tools for Japan’s recovery and later on the munitions required for the Korean War.

At its peak in 1959, the island was home to a community of over 5,000 people, living at densities of 835 people per hectare.  To put this in some context, Australia’s most densely populated suburb, Pyrmont, contained 139 persons per hectare in June 2012.

Jostling for space among Hashima’s high-rise apartments were all the activities associated with urban living: schools, kindergarten, gym, movie theatre, pinball parlour, restaurants and bars, supermarkets and other retail shops, hospital, sports grounds, Buddhist and Shinto temples.  Even a brothel.

The quality and size of living quarters – provided free of charge, along with electricity and water – mirrored the status of occupants.

Single miners and employees of sub-contracting companies lived in older, one-roomed apartments of less than 10 square metres, with a window, door and entrance foyer.  Occupants shared communal kitchen and bathroom facilities.  Married workers fared slightly better; they were allocated two rooms, but still with shared amenities.  High ranking office personnel and teachers could enjoy two bedroom apartments with kitchens and flush toilets.  The mine manager had the pick of the crop: a wood constructed residence with wide open views.

Some things weren’t available on Hashima.  Motor cars were non-existent, nor were they missed.  However, the absence of soil worked against the development of a sustainable food supply, with the resident community having to depend heavily on the outside world for food and other staples.

A hard-fought campaign to grow fresh produce on the island resulted in the importing of soil from the mainland in 1963 for rooftop gardens.  These not only gave residents fresh vegetables and flowers, but a semblance of “green space”.

The pleasure of being able to source locally grown produce, however, was short-lived.

As petrol replaced coal as an energy source in Japan in the 1960’s, coal mines began closing down throughout the country.  Hashima’s mine closed in January 1974 and the last resident left in April of that year.

This is what the island looks like today.  If you’ve seen the movie, Skyfall, these images will be familiar to you.













A steady trickle of journalists started arriving in 2005 and the ensuing media exposure culminated in the opening up of Hashima – or Gunkanjima, as it is billed in the tourist material – to visitation in 2009.  Due to the dangerous condition of the island’s buildings – several of which have collapsed – visitors are restricted to a specially constructed walkway and viewing area where oen corner of the island can be inspected.

Apart from its Skyfall credentials, Hashima has featured in various documentaries such as the History Channel’s Life After People and the 3D production, Forgotten Planet, which discussed the island’s current state, history and unauthorized photo shoots by urban explorers.  It has been a magnet for photographers and a unique setting for commercials.

In 2013, Google sent an employee to the island with a Street View backpack to capture its condition in panoramic 360-degree views and allow users to take a virtual walk across the island from the safety of their desktop.

It was with some curiosity that I learned of a proposal to designate Hashima as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Yes, indeed.  A non-profit organisation, “The Way to World Heritage Gunkanjima” has nominated the island as one of the “Modern Industrial Heritage sites in Kyushi and Yamaguchi”.  The organisation is represented by a former island resident, Doutoko Sakamoto.

While the nomination is inching up the ladder of approvals and is currently on the Tentative List, Korea has objected on the grounds of ill-treatment of its citizens during World War Two.

But is Battleship Island really worthy of such high level order recognition?

The nomination for a World Heritage Listing was made under the following cultural criteria:

  • (ii) “exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time, or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning, or landscape design”
  • (iii) “bears a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”
  • (iv) “is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural, or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history”

While the intent of these criteria is open to interpretation – could UNESCO not have chosen a simpler form of expression? – the general thrust of criteria (ii) and (iii) seems satisfied.

It is criterion (iv) that troubles me a little.

What constitutes “outstanding”?  Is it the appearance of the built form?  Its quality?  Functionality?  How it shaped its inhabitants’ way of life?  All of these things?

If this building is representative of apartment dwellings in their operational phase, then the test for architectural merit seems unlikely to be met.

50 years of abandonment and exposure to the elements have done little to retain whatever quality the buildings may once have had.

Designed well before the advent of energy efficiency ratings, the number of open windows and what appear to be retro-fitted air-conditioning units attest to uncomfortable living conditions in summer.  No doubt the reverse situation applied in winter, especially for those apartments which lacked direct sunlight access.

The highest living densities ever recorded in Japan must have tested neighbour relations to the limit, with up to five people sharing in a single room.

“Outstanding” it was not.

Yet despite its ruinous state, Hashima remains an endlessly and eerily fascinating place.  As I watched the tour guide rattle through the history of the island in the gentle breeze of an early summer, I wondered what it must have been like when the buildings were alive with people and the atmosphere buzzing with activity.

Several months on, I still carry memories of the desolate landscape and the scarred buildings.  Yes, Hashima certainly made an impression, even if not for all the reasons cited in the World Heritage bid.

It remains to be seen how the good adjudicators at UNESCO will handle this World Heritage nomination.

Watch this space.


© 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.

Much of the history of Hashima is drawn from “Hashima: the ghost island” by Brian Burke-Gaffney 2002