Monday, April 20, 2009

Elevator Etiquette

There are many unwritten rules of behaviour in any culture and Japan probably has more than most. Something that you've got to be mindful of is your rank compared to those around you. The surest indicator of where you are is your age. When meeting new people, you'll find that one of the first things they want to know about you is how old you are. You might consider this impolite, especially if you're female, but it's important for Japanese people to know whether you rank above them or below them. The language they use with you and the way they treat you will change significantly depending on this.

You might be thinking: "Yeah, it's better not to swear in front of your elders" or "That's true, I speak more casually with people my own age". It's much more than this though. In Japanese, every single verb, the terms of address and the sentence structure in general will change drastically based on the difference of a few years. It's not just age that can determine your social rank: being a teacher or being a guest will also raise your status.

When in the company of those above you, it's not just your language that has to change. In many social situations there are proper procedures that should be followed. One of these concerns the proper conduct in that cramped and awkward space: the elevator.

Luckily, a quick search on google reveals a website explaining it all. It starts by showing a comic strip, illustrating the problem:
In Japan, comic strips start in the top right and finish in the bottom left. The company director is about to get on the elevator, when all of a sudden, the young and overly keen worker shouts, "Wait!" and charges onto the elevator, bowling him over.
Tsk Tsk. Kids these days. No doubt she's part of the graduate intake.
Needless to say, this is not the proper etiquette.
Never fear though. A kindly old man is ready to explain things to the troubled young lady.

"Since there are already people on the elevator, you should let your seniors get on first, and you should get on last. If you're a new employee, you should stand next to the controls."

"Ah, I see. What should I do if there weren't people already on the elevator?"

"You should hold the door open, say "dozo", and allow your seniors to enter the elevator. It's then best if you stand next to the controls and operate the "close" and "open" buttons appropriately. You should try to avoid turning your back towards the people in the elevator. Instead, try to turn your back towards the wall."

Ahh. Don't you feel comforted now that you know exactly what you're supposed to do?

Hold-your-hand guidance like this is quite common. I've seen it a lot. Using one's own initiative isn't a typical trait of the Japanese worker. They like to be told exactly what's appropriate.
In general, whether it be an elevator, a meeting room, or a private room at a restaurant, the further towards the back you are, the higher your status. Yakuza bosses are always as far away from the door as possible - it's the safest place.
In the case of the elevator, the proper positioning depending on your social rank can be seen here: The door is on the right and the controls are at the bottom right. The highest ranking person goes in position 1 and the lowest ranking person goes in position 9. The rest arrange themselves as shown.
A few shops employ people to stand at the controls of the elevators and operate them for customers. I remember that one of the most famous bookshops in Tokyo, 紀伊国屋, has a particularly cramped elevator and a lady squeezes herself right up against the control panel, taking customers up and down all day. The trip is punctuated by her commentary: "going up", "going down", "this is the third floor", "please be careful, I'm closing the doors" etc. It would drive me mad to have a job like that.

I may do another post at some point on the proper positioning for when you're in a business meeting in Japan. Could be useful for those of you who come on business trips.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Takeaway Dinners and the Low Crime Rate in Japan

Takeaway dinners. Busy work schedules demand them but my wallet and my palette usually aren’t that keen. I’m guilty of ordering a pizza once every couple of weeks when I get home late and I’m on my own. It comes from a nearby restaurant that is quite famous in the area. When the pizza comes fresh out of the clay oven that they have, the dough is crispy on the outside and soft in the middle and it tastes very nice indeed. By the time it gets to my door, it’s a different story. The juice from the tomatoes has completely permeated the centre of the pizza, making the pointed end of a slice pretty floppy. Still good but probably not worth the money.

In Japan, the takeaway selection isn’t the same as the Indian, Chinese and Fish-and-chippy deep-fry-fest that I get back home. Pizza is a common option but I think that’s where it ends. I had sushi once, but I’m never that keen on something cold for dinner. Last month I ordered Chinese noodles. When I opened the door, the delivery guy said a cheery greeting then plonked the bowl of noodles on the floor, got out his kettle and poured the soup in front of me. That way the noodles don't go squishy while he's making the delivery.

Last night, there was the rare occasion of both of us being too busy and deciding to get a takeaway together. This time, we went for something different. I had the menu shoved in front of me while I was on the phone and after a cursory glance, I jabbed my finger at the bowl of rice with teriyaki chicken in it. I didn’t realize that it also came with a soup that you can pour into the chicken rice if you wish. I open the door and the chap is carrying this:

A tray full of food and a kettle. He hands me the (rather heavy) tray and I stand there, wondering if he’s going to pour some of the soup like the Chinese noodle guy. He stands there holding the kettle and doesn't do anything so I ask him,

“What am I supposed to do with that?”

“You pour it in”, he tells me.


“Then what?”

“Then you eat it.”

OK. Poor communication skills from me here. It was a late night. I was perplexed by the fact that he appeared to be offering me a decent looking kettle. Not only that, the chicken rice was contained in some very nice wooden steam pots. Didn’t he know that pizza places get away with cardboard boxes? How much was he going to charge me? Did he want me to pour the soup and then give him back the kettle? If so, what about these pots? All of these questions were bouncing around my fuzzy brain and I was trying to work out which of them I should ask first.

Luckily, my better half appeared at this point. She began carrying all of it into the house, allowing me to pay the guy, and then said something to him that made the penny drop:

“When we’re finished with this, where should we leave it?”

“There’s a shelf next to the entrance to the car park. Please put it there.”

After you’ve finished eating your meal, you leave all of the pots and pans outside and they come and pick it up the next morning.

There is no doubt in my mind that had I left this stuff on the street in some of the neighbourhoods that I’ve previously lived in, it would have been gone in short order. Japan has such a low crime rate that businesses can operate this way.

If you’re wondering about the interior of those pots, take a look.

Chicken Teriyaki rice for me. Eel for her. Both on a bed of rice.

In addition to the chicken rice mixture, there are also three containers of nori, wasabi and spring onions. There are also pickles to give some flavour to the rice. You put some of the chicken rice in the bowl next to the kettle, add some nori or wasabi or whatever you like, then add some soup. Quite tasty. You can of course mix and match as you please.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Thoughts on the work ethic in Japan

My friend Michael writes a great article on the work-life balance problem in Japan. According to the article, Michael is about to graduate and is understandably quite concerned about whether he’ll be able to achieve a good balance if he starts working in Japan. I’ve been working for a few years now and I’m just about to finish my first year in Japan. I thought I’d write a little bit about my take on the subject.

Why this is an issue

More than anything else, the Japanese work ethic has been the hardest thing for me to adjust to in Japan. This is not just in relation to my job and career but also in relation to the working habits of my loved ones and friends in Japan. The following examples may shock some of you but they will hopefully illustrate why I find myself getting angry with the whole situation.

  • I met one of my friends recently who works for the government and serves politicians. He currently works on preparing answers that the politicians will have to give to questions posed to them. He says that, on average, he goes home at 4:30am everyday. He then has to return to the office at 9am, in time for the politician’s questions. He has a two year old son that he hasn’t seen in quite a while. I was stunned that he found the time to meet with me at the weekend. Another friend who was there and having coffee with us works as a lawyer. She says she never goes home before midnight.
  • One of my colleagues was particularly busy last year and he says that he was going home after midnight (at the earliest) everyday. He was also working weekends. Things are a lot better now but he says that last year, he thought that he was going to have to stop working for an extended period due to the severe deterioration of his health. He is approaching thirty and still lives with his parents, who cook his dinner and probably help him out at home.
  • A story that I heard, and that I believe, comes from a colleague who used to work at one of the large technology companies famous for brutal overtime work practices. He says that one of his former colleagues walked into the office one day to find a team member slumped over his desk. He gave him a nudge to wake him up and discovered that his body was cold. An example of karoshi – death by overwork. I find myself aghast and disgusted by the utter irresponsibility and cowardice of the person in question and of management that would allow something like this to happen. This is surely the ultimate example of why Japan has a serious problem on its hands. The story made me sick with revulsion.
These stories are not typical and the average situation is very different but there is no mistake in saying that in Tokyo people work long hours. Many of my friends and contacts tell me that they regularly miss the last train home (after midnight).

My Company

I work in a very traditional Japanese company of just under 100 employees. Contractually, we are obliged to be in the office from 8:45am to 5:15pm. Everyone arrives on time in the mornings but very few people leave the office at 5:15pm. Some people leave quite early – between 6pm and 7pm – and these people are typically women who work in administrative roles. The latest that people regularly stay in the office is probably about midnight. Everyone else is somewhere in between. I would guess that the average is about 8:30pm. Factors that increase the probability of staying late in the office are: being male, being young, recently joining the company and having a strict boss. I can’t be sure but I think that most people only claim a small portion of the pay attributable to the overtime that they work.

As for me, I decided early on that I would leave the office between 7pm and 8pm everyday unless there is important work to do. I’ve generally stuck to that rule. On busy periods I’ve worked until about 10pm, but days like those are rare. I’m usually about the third person in my department to leave the office. I almost always go home before my boss, who usually stays quite late. I worried about leaving earlier than average but now I don’t worry so much. I’ve never received a word of complaint or been asked to work longer.

People’s attitudes

Mike seems to have been getting some pretty harsh feedback from his enquiries into these issues. It’s all been “doom and gloom” and the impression he got was “suck it up and stop whining or work in another country”. Maybe Mike was asking the wrong questions. Before you get a job, if you ask people whether you’ll be able to go home at a reasonable hour every day in Japan then it’s not surprising that they will want to manage expectations and warn you about how tough it will be. It is tough to maintain a good balance and compete with other workers and build a good career for yourself, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Since I’m already working, I haven’t been asking about what it’s like, since I know what it’s like. Instead, I’ve been asking my Japanese colleagues why they’re in the office so long. The answer I always get is that they don’t want to work late and that they wish they could go home early. Without exception, they agree with me when I put forward arguments such as:
  • If you work too hard then you get ill and end up taking time off anyway (I’ve seen this so much it makes me want to scream)
  • Happy workers are more effective workers
  • Workers that have time to go home, eat good food, rest and exercise are more effective workers
  • Staying in the office because your boss hasn’t gone home yet, even though you’ve got nothing to do, is idiotic
  • Blah blah blah, I could go on all day
I went to visit a friend for lunch recently who has been working in a large Japanese trading company for the last thirty years. We talked about these issues and he sighed at me saying, “I wonder when this country will change. Twenty years ago I watched as we started to take more notice of western thinking and practices and I hoped that outside influence might instigate a change for the better. However, significant improvement still seems far away.”

After talking to Japanese people in this fashion and challenging them on why they work this way, you might think that there’s a real, latent desire for change. I believe that people do want to change but there’s a deeper problem with the Japanese mindset, which makes it difficult.

Japanese people like working hard. More than that, they want to be acknowledged as a hard worker amongst their peers. One of the most common phrases that you’ll here in the office is, “お疲れ様です”, which translates literally as, “You must be tired” or more accurately as, “You’ve been working hard, thank you”. It’s the first thing you say whenever you start talking to a colleague. When you leave the office, it’s appropriate to say, “お先に失礼します”, which translates as “Excuse me for leaving before you”. Acknowledgment of other people’s hard work is a huge part of Japanese working culture. When I meet friends and ask how their job is going, it’s common for them to tell me stories about how difficult it’s been, how hard they’ve been working and of course, the appropriate response is to be sympathetic and compliment the other person on their efforts. Those people that tell me horror stories of endless late nights have a slight hint of pride in their voices and are usually looking for a response of, “Wow, you’ve been working hard”, rather than what I’m thinking, which is “Are you nuts? Go home early or change your job and stop tormenting your family.” Easier said than done in the current environment though.

There’s always a choice

Human beings are herd animals and this has been demonstrated to devastating effect with the expansion and inevitable collapse of countless economic bubbles. Japanese people are perhaps even more so. It’s certainly true that it’s difficult to go home early if everyone is working late, but it’s not impossible. I’ve been going home an hour or two earlier than average and I haven’t had any complaints. In fact, I’ve noticed that people around me are actually starting to go home earlier as well. I try to participate as much as I can in the social scene at work – I participate in regular soccer games, recent cherry blossom viewing trips and of course, nomikais. These events are only once a week and I’d much rather go home late after socializing rather than go home late after sitting at my desk all day. Building good relationships in the workplace helps a lot with 1. not feeling guilty when you go home and 2. convincing other people that they should go home early too!

I only believe people half of the time when they tell me that they have to work late every day because of their huge burden of work. Work never ends and if I wanted to, and had the energy, I could make up countless projects to do that would keep me at the office 24 hours a day. You have to prioritize the important stuff and Japanese people are really bad at that. OK, that’s not quite accurate, they’re not bad at prioritizing, they’re bad at leaving low priority stuff for the next day. Many of my colleagues won’t leave the office until they’ve finished everything, even if it’s late. Conscientious is the word. To the point of absurdity.

What companies should do

I looked at some data regarding overtime in Japan. Here are some links:

None of it is pretty. However, the problem with the data is that it relies on the accuracy of the accounts of those who are working. As I mentioned previously, most of my colleagues don’t claim a decent portion of their overtime. I also mentioned the “aren’t I working hard” mentality, so it’s hard to assess how accurately questionnaires would be filled out. I think it should be compulsory for overtime to be measured in an objective way. For example, if there’s security in the building, workers should sign out with security staff and the time they leave the office should be logged. This would be a good idea for security reasons as well. If there’s no security staff, as with my company, then the electronic keycards that we have should be used to monitor the time we leave the building. There are various laws relating to wages for overtime work and these should provide incentives for management to look after their employees. The senior managing director at my company told me that he wants people to go home early because overtime pay costs the company money. I suspect the problem is that these laws can’t be implemented effectively because no one is telling the truth about how long they’re working. Applying measures like the ones I’ve suggested, especially against the larger companies where people work the most overtime, would make a difference.

Update: It turns out that claiming overtime isn't as easy as it should be: see post

Friday, April 3, 2009

Figuring out the system... more examples

Continuing with the theme from my last post, my confusion in the local bookshop isn't the only example where I've found it challenging to figure out what on earth is going on. Here are a few more examples of me blundering my way through the Japanese systems.

Paying for the bus

I was very confused when I discovered I'd been queuing in the wrong place. In many cases in Japan, especially in the suburbs, you get on the bus from the rear. As you walk on, you take a small ticket with a number on it. I stared at this ticket, wondering why I'd been given a ticket when I hadn't paid for anything. I then sat down and noticed at the front of the bus, next to the driver's rear view mirror the following:

It took me way too long to work out what all these numbers were about. As the bus continued its journey, the numbers kept changing as well, which confused me even more. It's actually pretty simple and makes a lot of sense. If you pick up ticket number 8, then getting off at the next stop will cost you 180 yen. If you keep going, that price will increase and prices will appear under numbers 9, 10, 11 etc. You then pay when you get off. Genius. Why aren't all buses like that?

Finding places using an address

This still challenges me to this day. In Japan, streets don't have names and houses aren't numbered according to their position on the street. Instead, an area of land will be divided into sections and those sections will be divided into subsections and then those subsections will have buildings numbered within them. So my address is 2-1-41, which means that I'm at house number 41 within subsection 1, which is within section 2. This makes it a nightmare to find anything. Being in subsection 1 means that subsection 2 is probably nearby but you have no idea which direction to go.

Swimming pools

You'd think that going swimming at your local pool would be a simple exercise but there are things that tripped me up here as well. For instance, there are often pretty strict rules like: no watches or jewellery, and no swimming without a swimming cap. I was once asked to take my (waterproof) watch back to the changing room.

I think these are pretty good rules and I have no objections. What bewildered me was this: half an hour after I had started swimming, the lifeguards all stood up in their chairs and blew their whistles. Everyone then got out of the pool, including a rather confused foreigner. What had happened? Nothing serious, I hoped.

The pool was completely empty and the lifeguards went through a well rehearsed ritual of rotating their positions. Everyone else was sat dripping on benches near the pool or within the heated resting rooms. This procedure occurs regularly, perhaps once an hour, and is an obligatory resting period that lasts 10 minutes. Everyone has to get out of the pool and rest. Incredible.