Working in an office in Japan – Part 1

I’ve lived in Japan for over 12 years, and all of that has been spent working. As such, I thought I’d spend the next few posts talking about what it’s like working here.

NOTE: Please keep in mind, this is just from my experience. I in no way aim to say that this applies to every single office environment here. This is only what I have learned from my own experiences.


The Golden Rule

If you learn nothing else, learn this: Just because your work is done for the day does not, by any means, mean you get to leave early. If you get your work done by 2 p.m. and stand up, announce “I’ve finished my work for today so good-bye to you all,” you will swiftly become the most hated person in the office.

Even leaving on time is usually a sign you’re just not dedicated enough to your work. I usually flagrantly ignore the pointed stares of people and leave on time, though, because I have a family to get home to.

What you’re supposed to do, however, is if you somehow manage to finish all of your work, you must then ask co-workers if you can help them with their work. Your mission is to not go home until at least the head of your department goes home.

Japan still seems to adore people who overwork, even though so many people here literally die from working too much. I think it’s a toxic mentality that really needs to change.


The hierarchy

Personally, I think Japan wasn’t ready to say good-bye to feudal lords. Much like some dinosaurs evolving into birds, feudal lords and samurai simply evolved into office workers.

Sitting at the top of this feudal system is the president of the company. This man (unfortunately usually a man – Japan has a long way to go) is usually so revered in the company that I get the feeling I shouldn’t even look them in the eye if I were to ever meet them.

The hierarchy is filtered down through the various departments.

Within a department you usually have:

  1. The head of the department (bucho)
  2. The second-in-command (fuku-bucho)
  3. A few other people who are like supervisors
  4. People who have been there a while
  5. People who have been there kind of a while
  6. People who are part-time or dispatch
  7. People who just started out

The people who have been there longer than you are called your sempai (superiors) while you are their kouhai (subordinate). While your job is to listen to what your sempais tell you to do, their job is to nurture you and make you a better employee. Of course, this isn’t how it always pans out. Lots of sempai enjoy reenacting The Devil Wears Prada on their kouhai. Lots of kouhai expect their sempai to take responsibility for everything. It happens, and it can be miserable.

Many kouhai put up with getting ordered around a lot because they are holding onto the dream that new hires will arrive the next fiscal year (new hires usually come into a department at the beginning of April). Then, the once-kouhai employees will have someone to whom they will be known as a sempai. The people who have worked there longer, naturally, will forever be your sempai. I haven’t seen much meritocracy in action in the offices here.

Something I find both amusing and frustrating is that a lot of employees nearing retirement are basically allowed to do whatever they want at the office. I’ve seen people just sit in the back of the office and take a daily nap whenever the mood strikes. I think the other employees just allow this, even the head of the department, because that employee probably sweated blood and tears for the past 50 years.


Office shuffle

Something both odd and intriguing that I’ve noticed here is that most companies have various departments within their office, and will shuffle people through the various departments throughout that person’s career there. This means I’ve had bosses who are there for three years before being moved to another department. Co-workers come and go as well. Only the one-year contract people, dispatch workers and part-timers stick around in one department for a little while.

I think this shuffle is odd in that I believe it makes sense to create a team of experts in any given department to ensure work is being done well. I also think it’s intriguing because it can get quite boring doing the same work day in and day out, so moving to a different department every few years makes work a little bit less boring.


Dealing with conflict

I have noticed that direct confrontation here is usually avoided at all cost in the office. If you’re going to start yelling at someone, you had better either be their boss or severely drunk at the time and near a pub.

If you have an issue with one of your co-workers, the common course of action is actually not to just walk up to them and say, “Hey, I’d love to talk to you about this problem I have with something you did.” Instead, you are generally encouraged to take it directly to either the head of the department (bucho) or the second-in-command in the department (fuku-bucho). That person then either expresses that complaint to the offending person or tells you it’s not worth pursuing.

As such, you might never know if people in the office have a problem with you until the head of the department saunters over to your desk to discuss it with you.

That is not to say gossip and commiserating with your co-workers about other co-workers isn’t rampant. I’ve found many co-workers will be absolutely civil to people who have offended them in the office, only to rant about them for the full hour-long lunch break.

All of this to say that just because no one says anything to you about something doesn’t mean they’re all just fine with it. For example, the dress code says no heavy perfume, but you decide to wear it and think it’s ok because no one is saying anything. On the contrary, everyone in the office is waiting for someone else to be brave enough to talk to the head of the department about you.

This all raises the question of: But what if your head of the department is horrible?

Most people in the offices where I have worked just suck it up when their boss is a nightmare.

The vaccine

After much waiting and sheer paranoia just going outside to buy groceries, I finally got the second dose of the vaccine.

Since I heard about the vaccine back at the beginning of the year (I think it was around then – everything has kind of melded together at this point), I couldn’t wait to get it.

It’s an odd feeling welcoming a horribly sore arm for the first dose and then merrily skipping to the second dose so I can feel like I’ve been in a badly planned bar fight the day after. But here we are.

As I wrote earlier, Japan gave every eligible person living in Japan a vaccination certificate in July good for two doses of a vaccine for free. They had a few websites set up for making appointments and a chart that let you know whether your surrounding clinics were interested in you calling them up, checking their website, going through the city’s vaccination website or some combination of them.

The problem was that everything booked up in an instant. This was right before the Olympics kicked off, and I think everyone was thinking like me in that it would probably be a good idea to be vaccinated before they began.

I at least got a stroke of luck in that I saw on the little chart mailed to me along with the vaccine certificates that my local clinic was fine with me calling them to ask. So I called them just before they closed for lunch, and they had exactly one appointment available. I didn’t care when; I took it. You want me at the clinic at 3 a.m. on a Monday morning? I’m there. I was beyond desperate for the vaccine.

I think driving my panic is obviously the delta variant, and the fact that about 95% of Japanese people, based on my own observations, are wearing masks out in public. This is a culture that has long accepted masks for occasions ranging from “I’m really sick” to “I didn’t have time to put makeup on this morning.” This is a culture that has now put wearing masks in public on the same level as wearing clothing in public.

And yet, the delta variant is raging here. I think people are getting tired of wearing masks to this extent, even in this country of mask-wearers. Society is pressing on with schools being back in session and people expected to head on in to work on crowded trains. People are starting to think taking their masks off for a few hours at a pub won’t be a huge problem.

To me, that means masks alone aren’t going to cut it anymore. Since the beginning of this pandemic I have held on to the belief that not making unnecessary outings, wearing a mask and washing my hands would all help me not catch this virus. Now I’m seeing that it’s all not enough.

And so here I am, gratefully suffering side-effects from my second dose of the vaccine, a great weight of anxiety raised slightly off my shoulders. I know there are breakthrough cases, but it’s only a fool who thinks anything is bulletproof. I’m sure I’ll wind up with horrible luck and get the stupid virus anyway. I’m just praying that I can help push along herd immunity all the same.

A newspaper the other day said about 50% of all those eligible for the vaccine in Japan have now gotten their second dose. I am praying, deeply horribly praying, that the percentage only rises.

Karuizawa

A waterfall in Karuizawa

When it’s ridiculously hot outside and there’s no pandemic raging, many Japanese like to escape into the mountains or up north. A popular getaway spot is Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture.

To me, the place feels like a charming rustic area with log cabins, an old-fashioned-but-sophisticated downtown area and some truly nice hotels. Nature is everywhere, and so are photo opportunities.

Above all, it’s cool there in the summer. When you live where it’s 75 percent humidity and 35 C all day long, finding anywhere that’s even just a little bit cooler is a welcome reprieve.

Karuizawa seems like an ideal spot for camping, too, and I hope one day we can actually try it out there.

Growing watermelon

My watermelon plant

I have a kid who loves watermelon. The problem is, watermelon in Japan is insanely expensive. At my local discount grocery store, at the height of when watermelon were in season, one volleyball-size watermelon went for $12, and that was incredibly on sale. The average seems to be about $20.

My kid has some interest in growing things, so one day last month I put a couple leftover watermelon seeds into some soil, did some research on the internet, and began watching it grow.

Insects adore this plant, of course, so every day I’m out there batting away one bug or another while spraying neem oil (yes, I’m apparently that kind of gardener).

What worries me is that it’s not growing nearly as quickly as I thought it would. I thought I’d have a little fruit growing at this point, but it’s still climbing up the netting I put up, considering its next route along the net rather than whether it should create some flowers. I knew I’d planted it incredibly late in the year considering when watermelon are usually in season, but I thought the plant would still give me a watermelon before September.

Now I’m mostly worried I’ll finally get a little watermelon growing in, say, November, and the cold will promptly kill it.

Still, I’m not giving up. My kid goes out to our little garden, excited to see it growing some more, and I don’t want to kill that excitement with, “Well, Mommy planted the seeds too late so I’m just going to pull this up now.”

I’ll let you know if I ever get a watermelon.

Fireworks festivals

Summer in Japan simply isn’t fun right now because of the pandemic. Of course I understand why festivals of any kind are out of the question right now, but I’d like to take a moment and lament their temporary loss.

Japan in the summer is hot, humid and altogether unpleasant unless you’re up north like in Aomori or Hokkaido. For me, the most unpleasant place to be during the summer is Kyoto. Thanks to it being surrounded by mountains, Kyoto is like a bowl that just soaks up the heat and humidity and keeps it there for a while. Going outside your door in the morning during the summer can be entirely painful. I think Florida in America during the summer is a good comparison.

Still, I love summers in Japan mostly because they offer festivals. There are classic festivals where people wear summer kimono called yukata and walk among street vendors offering games, snacks and random prizes like goldfish. Then you have bon-odori festivals where a stage is set up in the center of the festival, and people dance in a circle around it.

Last, and my favorite of all the festivals, are fireworks festivals. They have the street vendors and sometimes even bon-odori, but all against a backdrop of fireworks that go off in succession for sometimes an hour.

The most stunning fireworks festival I’ve been to was in Kamakura, where they set the fireworks off in the water while people watch from the beach (see the photo above). I loved seeing the fireworks reflected in the water while sitting on the beach, enjoying the waves at night.

I miss walking down the road at night heading toward the fireworks in a crowd of people, eyeing the food stalls along the way and wondering which I should pick. I miss feeling excited to see the fireworks and wondering what kind they would be doing that year. I even miss the mass exodus following the fireworks display. There were times I would have to walk to the station before the closest one to avoid the crowds. I never thought I’d miss that.

I’m looking forward to a summer in the near future that is not simply to be endured.

The Periodical, Forlorn – Mythos Reborn

I’m thrilled to announce I got a short story published in the latest edition of The Periodical, Forlorn. Called Mythos Reborn, it’s a collection of scary myths of some kind.

I picked writing about the Japanese demon, an oni, because I was curious about them.

Japan has a tradition of oni appearing on a day called Setsubun in February. The demon appears inside your home, and your job is to drive them away by throwing beans at them while saying, “Luck stays inside, the demon goes outside.” This usually translates to parents buying a demon mask and having their kids throw beans at them for a few minutes.

They show up in a lot of myths in Japan, and are a common staple on shows having to do with monsters and ghosts in Japan.

One thing I don’t really know about oni is where they come from. A quick Google search suggested they come from spirits of the dead, but why? Why are some spirits said to turn into demons?

So I came up with my own idea of how this happens and wrote a short story about it.

I hope you enjoy it! This is the first time I’ve ever been paid for a story, so I think this story will always mean a lot to me, even if I read it each time thinking of how I could’ve done better.

Wanderlust Literary Travel Journal

I’m really happy to write that the Wanderlust Literary Travel Journal has published my photo, “Mikan” on their site.

As someone who’s struggling to keep two mikan (they’re like clementines or mandarin oranges) fruit alive on my little mikan tree, I’m growing more and more jealous of people who seem to put a massive mikan tree in front of their house here in Japan like it’s an afterthought.

I have three mikan trees I’m growing from seed at the moment, so I’m hoping maybe in ten years I can finally enjoy from fruit from them, but being impatient, I also bought a little stick of a tree from my local nursery. It had been growing about six mikan, but then three fell off in random acts of nature being cruel, and now I have two left I’m watching like a hawk.

Considering we have a tropical storm set to slam us tomorrow, I’m trying to find a place where I can protect my little tree from the elements.

The Olympics

I love the Olympics and Paralympics. I love the opening ceremonies, the closing ceremonies, and almost every sport available to watch. My favorite summer sports to watch are diving, archery, soccer, rugby and anything with a skateboard or bike.

When I learned the Olympics were coming here, I was beyond excited. It’s been my dream for a long time to see even one event in person. Finally, it was happening.

However, the pandemic put a massive cloud over any excitement I could’ve had. The Olympics are all about coming together from around the world, and the pandemic has made it imperative we do the opposite.

While I’ve heard vaccination rates are going fairly well in America, Japan is still far behind. Where I live, I finally got a little ticket in the mail that says I’m eligible to get a free vaccine, but when I logged on to the government website to book an appointment, I got a message saying, “Supplies to your area have depleted to the point where we can no longer accept appointments for a while.”

This all means that, to me, the Olympics are a disaster waiting to happen. I hope, dearly, that I am wrong. I hope the Olympics happen and don’t cause a massive wave in infections in Japan. But talking to my other friends here, no one seems hopeful we can avoid this. I’m left clutching my temporarily useless vaccination ticket and bracing myself. That is definitely not the sentiment the Olympics should instill.

The pandemic has ruined so many things. Above all, it has killed far too many and severely wounded too many. I hope these Olympics don’t add to either of those groups. Unfortunately, I think that is what will mark whether these Olympics and Paralympics were successful.

Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go

One place I’d really love to visit again is Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage site that has farmhouses dating back 250 years.

What I love most about it is that it’s an actual working village. People live there year-round, so you get to see little kids’ bikes left out beside a historic building. I love it.

The thatched roofs are also just spectacular.

I’m getting the sense from many of my Japanese friends that old, traditionally Japanese architecture are seen as ridiculously rundown and outdated. I think maybe that’s why cities like Tokyo and its surroundings are just knocking down old, traditional buildings and putting in the vogue architecture at the time of building.

To me, that’s a shame. Traditional Japanese architecture is spectacular, and Shirakawa-go really puts that on display.

I loved wandering around the village, following the little streams running throughout it and enjoying the massive sunflowers growing alongside the thatched-roof farmhouses. It was a place to go and quietly enjoy where you were, which made it peaceful.

My dream is to visit there in the fall or winter and take about a million photos.

Anime vs. reality

I think many fans of Japanese anime and manga will be disappointed that Japan isn’t much like what they see in their favorite stories.

Japan, in general, is a strikingly conservative and reserved society. I read a book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior by Kate Fox, and in the book she likens Japan to England.

Both are island nations with people who generally seem to enjoy their privacy and not making loud scenes in public unless alcohol is heavily involved. Even the act of people kissing in public here is frowned upon.

Exceptions abound, of course. I can point to Tokyo’s Harajuku as one such example of creativity overflowing. Osaka is also apparently famous for people being loud and speaking their minds.

However, in general, I’ve found that Japan is extremely conservative. For example, apart from women dying their hair brown or the older generations dying gray hairs, hair-dying is heavily frowned upon here. Along with the school uniforms and then business attire dress codes, I feel like Japan is quite in love with the idea of uniformity in their society.

Above all, no one seems to want to make waves within their community. Whether that means dressing more conservatively or being quieter than you would like in any given situation, I haven’t met many people who are willing to contradict this idea.

I think that’s why a lot of Japanese anime and manga can get so crazy. I think it’s how many Japanese can vent their creative frustrations because this stifling society doesn’t allow too much creative expression.

I think that’s why a lot of Japanese TV variety shows are also absurdly over-the-top. I think it’s a way for people to come home from a day of conforming and relieve stress by laughing at people clearly not conforming.