Saturday, October 23, 2010

Drinking, Working on Sunday, and the Philosophies of Japanese Life-Work Management

Another Saturday, another meet up with some coworkers for some English "lessons" and lunch. The topic somehow (and quite logically) came to the issue of how Japanese salary-men and Office Ladies spend their weekends. Not surprisingly, the typical answers were "taking it easy, hanging out with friends, and having a few drinks," but extent to which all of these mix in with work-related stuff is absolutely shocking for a foreigners used to a complete division between work and life.

Sure, being good friends with your similar-aged coworkers and hanging out with them outside of office is of course possible and understandable (same reason why I am there every Saturday). But lets take a closer look at what we were doing: the lunch conversations frequently merged into classified technical fields of the company, interlaced with insider information each departments and their heads.

This was happening all the while anything about the company is off-limits for everyday conversation (as per company regulations). Even more symbolically, we were doing the English "lessons" inside the company building and lunch in a nearby salary-men style canteen...after our little meetup, some of us (myself not included) even went back to their desks in the company.

I think separation of private and work life is not simply a Western concept. Biologically, people should be averse to going to a place of hard labor (not to mention much mental pain) anymore than they are required. Environment change often is the primary vehicle for change in mentality, especially between one of tense readiness and complete joyful relaxation.

In this particular group, as a reflection of Japanese work culture in general, has chosen to see the company simply as a community and platform, where both hard work and playfulness can occur. But even more than college campuses (where the same logic sort of applies), the exact same rooms for work can be converted for other purposes than are not at all serious and related to the company.

Besides the omnipresence of the company building in the salary-man's life, the close integration of work and life can also be seen from another perspective. One of the coworkers mentioned how he goes out drinking everyday after work. Not necessarily with people from work, but the whole idea of showing up with the attire and attitude of work to a drinking environment sort of symbolizes that the drinking itself will not be 100% casual and free from thoughts of work.

And then everything seems to go back into a loop. More work means more opportunities for drinking, and more drinking means more opportunities for work. The cycle connects the two major activities of the Japanese employee and give birth to the image that most foreigners have of the Japanese as workaholics who cannot even get rid of work in drinking parties.

Not that this is all bad. I have repeatedly pointed out the importance of loyalty to their own company displayed by the Japanese. The fact that the company remains in every aspect of their lives gives a strong sense of familial ties among employees and a deep sense of commitment displayed by the individuals toward the company. It is the major strength of Japanese companies that allow them to retain skilled labor over time despite attempts by competitors to steal human resources.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The "Picky" Customers and Japanese Consumerism

There was a particular example often raised when people talk about how picky Japanese people can be regarding, well, everything they buy. The Kit-Kat chocolate bar, started in the US with one original flavor (um, chocolate) somehow morphed into 27+ different varieties over its decades of development in Japan. While the Kit-Kat bar remains the same and popular in the States, in Japan, flavors come and go as consumers magically get tired of them a few months after introduction.

And Kit-Kat bars certainly isn't an exception. Everything from soft drinks to sausages always seemed to carry some extra ingredient that is not thought of even in their countries of origin. Food flavors comes in and goes out faster than fashion trends, leaving companies forced to constantly innovate their products. Now, if food flavors in Japan are like fashion trends elsewhere, you can bet that actual fashion trends have pretty much no comparison.

Well, everyone is a fan of innovation. Better designed products with greater functionality improves people's standard of living, often without the need to raise the product's cost. And for Japan, the cutthroat competition forced by constant innovations probably helps to cement its reputation as a producer of cutting edge technologies and origin of many interesting, unique products first started in Japan and now sold around the world (instant noodles, for one).

But while the sort of innovation for survival in Japan attests to both the maturity and stagnancy of the consumer markets here, it probably speaks greater volumes about the cultural mentality of the Japanese rather than the economic conditions. After all, the competition for basic products in the States are just as intense and wide open for Japanese firms with their innovative products to enter, but the sort of varieties seen in Japan has not taken hold on the other side of the Ocean.

Again, the issue is one perhaps unique to small, densely packed countries. The lack of space in Japan has forced the Japanese to develop a strong attention to intricate, functional details as compensation for lack of greater area. The lack of resources further forced the Japanese to minimize size of most products, compelling them to concentrate even more on the details to make the items just as productive as larger ones.

On the other hand, the open expenses and seemingly endless resources fielded by the States creates a "whatever" attitude among the people. Size and quantity becomes a standard of quality by themselves, and the attention of detail by the Japanese is often seen as absurdity. So, as materialistic as the Americans are, their focus seems to be just getting more "stuff" that do separate individual tasks, a very logical conclusion given the high income and large garages for storage.

The opposite is true for Japan. Rather than buying a new product with a different function, a product with one function will be replaced one that performs multiple functions. The processing speed and convenience of each individual products will be tested to the maximum because small Japanese homes does not allow the simultaneous existence of many products.

Such attention to quality, then, is easily explainable for food. Because the idea of food as filling (for low price) cannot exist given limited resources, they must "taste good" in extraordinary ways to satisfy the appetite. And while price reflect the quality in a large state, in Japan, the high price is an established fact, and the manufacturers have to bring up extraordinary quality even for low-end products to match the cost.

The result, not surprisingly, is the general lack of affinity for everyday goods at their localities displayed by Japanese abroad. Greater choices at home, topped off with greater quality defined by functionality, and plus better service, leads to conclusion that Japanese-designed goods are superior. But, as discussed, the high quality is but a long-winded side effect of Japan as a country lacking resources.

Alcohol in your Mouth, but Work still in your Mind...

Company employees going out to drink after work and on weekends is pretty common phenomenon. (I did last night...and I am still feeling a little, um, unnatural in my stomach as I write this post) Even bosses and senior colleagues would likely to join for a few. The atmosphere is generally pretty rowdy as people's characters start to reshape toward a more spontaneous side after few.

To such a biological certainty, one colleague said it well after a couple of beers, "I may get drunk,but I will not lose my consciousness." To someone from the West, that may just sound like the guy bragging about how much control he has over his alcohol-infused mentality, but the phrase, I realized, sort of takes on a double meaning in the Japanese context.

As with anything else in Japan, the hierarchic power structure of any group environment can clearly be felt and is expected to be maintained even as rowdiness takes over. Even as alcohol renders the body incapable of performing prohibitive bows, the mind seems to retain that clear knowledge of who is ahead and who is behind in terms of status within the company.

Yet, furthermore, what really surprises me is that a drunk Japanese can actually show even greater affinity and willing to concede to such a structure when his ability to make decisions are clearly impaired. The discussions on seniority (age, education, etc) seems to become even more intense when people are drunk, people seem even more sensitive toward who to use honorary language (or what the alcohol-impaired mind can actually piece together) and who not to.

It is a phenomenon that baffles me from a biological standpoint. As I have come to observe over the years (well, at least outside Japan), any sort of social construct, including rules of hierarchical arrangements, weakens with alcohol due to overpowering strength of raw emotions that are usually suppressed to prevent social blundering when sober.

That is precisely the reason why people use alcohol as a social lubricant. Joy and excitement become primary expressive tools of inebriated people, allowing them to overcome sense of embarrassment and fear of negative social consequences from doing/saying otherwise socially "stupid" things. This process is simply biological and should be present in all humans, which is why alcohol is enjoyed in all societies without religious restrictions.

So, perhaps, for Japan, a new definition of what is "socially stupid" must be created. If outright expressions of social hierarchy becomes something common when people are drunk, what does it say about the entire social order during normal business hours? It says that social order is never defined verbally (or explicitly in any particular way) but by mutual understanding.

So Japanese social order is like the English "common law." Not much is written but all the judgments can be made by looking at precedents. Do exactly what people of the past did in the same situation. Open challenges to the precedents can screw up the entire premise of the system. This, I suppose, is why Japanese corporate structure, and seniority system in Japanese society as a whole, is so resistant and incapable of change.

Monday, October 11, 2010

the First Week of Work...Experiencing "Salary-manhood"

I knew this day would come, but just not in such a desperate and tiring way...the day when my blog goes from a daily (and sometimes hourly) inquiry into my ever-randomly thought-generating mind to a complete afterthought in the shadow of daily work assignments and the lonesome life of a Japanese salary-man. I did not know that the shadow would be so spacious and chilling.

People says the ever-increasingly non-relevance of Japanese companies is due to lack of innovative ideas in their ranks. Before, I used to find this sort of pointed commentary racist. Brainpower is biologically equally distributed and any society, rich or poor, is capable of generating rebels of some sort. How is it that the Japanese society has been automatically deprived of "innovative power"?

Now I have a clearer understanding. The basic pretext of an innovative thought being generated are two: (1) a societal stimulus passes through the mind, whereupon the mind sees the stimulus' lack of consistency with its version of ideal society, and (2) the society has given the said individual the freedom and the courage for him to inquire and act upon that particular inconsistency.

Modern Japan has neither of these pretexts readily available. Sure, some companies, like mine, have tried their best escaping from the corporate culture here, but it is far from enough. I am getting seriously tired of saying how speaking perfect English does not makes you international or even non-Japanese. Dressing casual as sign of being non-traditional is trivial compared to all the traditions that are not broken and dutifully conformed.

All this in a backdrop where I am repeatedly told that we, the non-Japanese employees, should change the Japanese rather than the other way around. As if that is actually possible! How dare we stand out and be that barbarian who violates the rule? In a place where we are completely at the mercy of Japanese coworkers and bosses, who are we on the lowest ranks tell anyone how to act and think?

Ok, here is a little detail probably none other than me have really though about: in our (Japanese) business manner lessons, we were explicitly instructed that women not having make up on in a workplace is unprofessional and unacceptable. Right, basic rules of etiquette these days do say that women are suggested to have make up on in public, but nowhere else have I ever encountered any written rules that forbids not having make up on.

I am not much of a feminist, and would too prefer women with make up (and shaved legs and armed pits, among other "womanly conduct") but the fact that a blatant piece of gender inequality is a part of a public endorsed code of conduct is just shameful on many levels. And that highest level of shamefulness is the fact that no one, at any level of this particular society, makes a peep about this.

To make a substantial change, one must first be willing to act as a "lone rebel." Thats the kind of aggressiveness the company ideology has been so codified to admire. Yet it seems like if a woman with no make up walks into the office one day, I would be the only one feeling sincerely respect. The social reflex of the vast majority will gladly label the woman as "uncultured" in an instant.

So we the salary-men are supposed to think. Yet we will not say. A forced smile splashing across our faces, we move forward. To us, it seems that the greatest ideal is keeping this beautiful status quo. No one disturbs the peace and all the women dress and look well at anytime...well, all until someone snaps from the stress and the tiredness....

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Two Rakutens

Heading into the grandiose welcoming ceremony for new employees, I was utterly surprised by the scale of Rakuten's ambitions to become global...well, on the surface, at least. Dozens of foreign employees from across the globe (especially a group of Chinese students directly hired from the mainland) and the whole ceremony was conducted in English.

It seems that Rakuten takes its promise to become English-speaking very seriously. But, as the ceremony continues, the Japanese side of the company really began to take over. Even as (heavily-accented) English continues to fly, the ceremony was no different from any other Japanese one.

The big bosses and the little new guys all bowed solemnly, and applause and cheers were not to be heard at any point. Even after the ceremony at a little welcoming snack session, the CEO passing through the room was treated as if homecoming of a celebrity, with us the new guys herded around him for a highly scripted (and highly unnatural and awkward) "conversation."

Of course, there is no denying that Rakuten continues to be an overwhelmingly Japanese company. Most of the clientèle and employees (even the new ones) are Japanese, and even as the 2012 English conversion deadline pass by, the conversations among most employees outside work continue to be Japanese. As I have said before, changing a language is easy, but changing to a culture that fits the language? not so much....

I don't want to repeat my views on Japanese corporate culture, I am tired of talking about those cliches. But those cliches exist because they are real and highly impressionable, or should I say, haunting for the many foreigners who has to put up with Japanese culture in this so-called "global company."

The thing that probably showed in the most obvious way Rakuten's lack of readiness for globalization is its training procedures. Unbelievably, all manuals for software setups (required by all new employees) are completely in Japanese with no English versions anywhere to be found. After hiring HR saying that new year's applicants don't even need to speak Japanese, this is quite shocking.

And whats more surprising is that outside of few people in top management, most Japanese employees (including the new ones coming in) doesn't seem to be living up to the global workplace the big boss is trying so hard to create. Outside of polite conversations, clear gap and distance between foreign and Japanese employees exist. And of course, the higher in the corporate structure, the fewer foreigners are seen (with none on the board of directors).

Perhaps the group in the best position to bridge this foreign Rakuten-Japanese Rakuten schism is the (small) group of Japanese students who have studied abroad. Unfortunately, most of them tend not to escape from Japanese culture in the years abroad, so they tend to remain mostly Japanese (who just happened to be absent from Japan for a few years)...I suppose the foreign-conscious Japanese students would have stayed in whatever foreign countries they studied in rather than come look for a job in Japan.