Japan is a land of many masks. Photo: J. Henning Buchholz/Shutterstock.com

Wednesday 26th August 2015

Globetrotting HR: Japan

Meet the culture that has a word for 'death by overwork'

In a new feature, we thought we’d spin one of those old-timey globes to showcase some of the qualities that make individual countries unique in their HR practices.

For although there are international conferences and global standards of HR management, almost no country is the same. Cultural attitudes and history inform expectations at work. For example, America guarantees only 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave whereas Sweden offers a cushy 65 weeks of 80% pay, with further weeks available unpaid. And tough luck anybody having kids in Tunisia, who enshrine in law only a measly four weeks.

However, for our first instalment we cast our eyes towards Japan.

Tate shakai – ‘Vertical Society’

In the West, there is an inclination to put individual merit first. Top performers get the perks and the promotions. Indeed, it can be difficult to imagine it being different, although of course it has been in the past (meritocracy is also believed to have originated in Chinese civil service exams).

However, in Japan far more respect is assigned to age and experience. Honorifics in speech enforce a rigid, hierarchical respect for your elders — like a nuanced protege/mentor relationship — although the difference between the kouhai – ‘subordinate’ and the senpai – ‘senior’ may be only several years.

Traditional Japanese companies have very slow upward mobility in comparison to Western companies, and are very reluctant to use methodologies like performance-based pay.

Wa – ‘Harmony’

In Japan, there is a strong belief in the power of the collective. Talk about identifying and elevating your “top performers” is unlikely to be found in traditional Japanese businesses.

Success is shared among many rather than assigned to individuals, and likewise there is more collective responsibility for mistakes. Japan is one of the flattest countries in terms of income — it has many times been the least unequal country in terms of income in the world. This is symptomatic of a country where competition and personal ambition are secondary to group success.

This is one of the reasons why HR can be an unpopular business area in Japan, according to Dr Hiro Watanabe, as they have “power in the allocation of personnel in different departments.”

Honne and Tatemae – ‘inner desires’ and ‘outer façade’

Similar to the idea of Chinese ‘face’ — there is a strong cultural tendency in Japan towards restraint. Expressing your true feelings to others around you can be see as socially inept or rude. Maintaining politeness at all times is seen as paramount, even when doing so involves what we might consider lying.

For example, somebody may extend the offer for you to come to their house, when in reality they do not mean it. It is a purely a token gesture. Pressing the issue may be seen as inappropriate and make somebody feel uncomfortable.

For HR, this means that in general there is less friction in an office environment. It is seen a culturally very desirable trait to maintain politeness and calm in the face of adversity. So, little workplace tit-for-tat is far rarer than in the West. Which in turn means less employee conflict resolution, but also that undercurrents of unhappiness and other issues are far harder to detect and deal with.

Japan is also renowned as having one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Some of that may be attributed to their cultural stoicism, and the difficulty individuals may have with expressing themselves or seeking help.

This social pressure is also implicated in a phenomenon mostly peculiar to Japan — hikokimori – ‘acute social withdrawal’. This is where teenagers and adults withdraw completely from social activities and live like hermits in isolation. It has been suggested up to 1% of the Japanese population live in this manner.

Nomikai – ‘Drinking Parties’

Photo: Andres Garcia Martin/Shutterstock.com

These events are held after work to celebrate the completion of projects, milestones, new employees and a myriad of other little office events. Big deal, you might think. People go out to toast success in business the world over.

However, nomikai are rather different. There are formal traditions involved — speeches, and ritualised clapping. There may or may not be company songs. You never fill your own drink, but rather the kouhai offer to fill their senpai’s drinks, and then have the favour returned.

Not only that, but getting drunk is considered part and parcel of a nomikai. Things said and done at a nomikai (within reason, probably) are automatically forgiven on return to the office. So it can be a time to vent some pent up frustrations.

Karōshi – ‘Death by overwork’

An HR problem most people aren’t particularly familiar with, it is an acknowledged issue in Japan that many employees work too hard. Pulling long weeks, and on top of those many hours of unpaid overtime, can lead to serious medical issues — both physical and mental.

It is not unknown for some people to work over 100 hours per week. Taking few holidays and a culture of ‘presenteeism’ can lead to heart attacks and strokes in the relatively young, and cause mental breakdowns or suicide.

Culturally, according to Dr Watanabe, it is often expected that these workers, especially junior workers, do not take overtime pay for this extra work. He stresses that since employers are often far more powerful than unions, negotiated overtime allowances are effectively unlimited.

When it comes to death in the workplace, Professor Watanabe also believes that employers often “try to escape from their responsibility” where overwork is implicated, either in stress induced illness or suicide.

Shūshin koyō – ‘Lifetime Employment’

Although dedicating one’s life to something has long been admired in Japan (there is a long history of extremely gruelling apprenticeships), the concept of lifetime employment is actually a 20th Century innovation.

Mass lay-offs after WW2 led to confrontations with unions which eventually resulted in legal protections against large-scale lay-offs. Although less common that it used to be, it is still very commonplace for a young graduate to join a company and work there for life. Termination requires serious justification.

There is a preference towards training and learning from mistakes, rather than swapping employees for new ones. Japan has a very strong talent pipeline (a company may recruit over a thousand new graduates in one swoop).

There is a long-standing belief that devotion to your company is more relevant to being a good worker than your competency.

Dr Hiroaki Watanabe

One consequence of this is in hard times, companies offer generous voluntary retirement packages, or utilise more innovative methods to push employees into resigning, such as ‘chasing-out rooms’ where employees are given minimal responsibilities until they leave of their own accord.

Changing future

Dr Watanabe believes that many of the outliers of Japanese culture in business are being eroded, especially due to the fact that the “economic environment of Japan has changed significantly since the beginning of the 1990s”, by which he is referring to the consecutive recessions Japan has experienced.

This has led to the adoption of many more international standards of business practice. This includes an improving gender gap (pay and employment) which has been historically very wide in Japan, loosening of the cultural belief in lifetime employment, and more acceptance of paying according to merit.

Luckily, signs point to nomikai remaining an integral part of Japanese business culture, which is good, because they sound pretty cool.

About the author

Jerome Langford

Jerome is a graduate in Philosophy from St Andrews, who alternately spends time writing about HR and staring wistfully out of windows, thinking about life’s bigger questions: Why are we here? How much lunch is too much lunch? What do you mean exactly by ‘final warning’?