Guest Blog - a Toil of Two Cities

This week I have special treat for you all. Chris Covell is an expert in all things retro. I have asked him about writing a series of articles on the retro gaming scene in Japan for my blog. He has agreed, but first, he wanted to share a little something with us . I feel this is an issue we can all sympathize with. Therefore , without furthur ado, I present the first in, hopefully, a long series of editorials that explore Japan from a western perspective. I was to thank Chris for helping me to lead off this new weekly feature.

A Toil of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It all just depends on where you live, of course.

Most people who play videogames have by now heard the tale of ”ea_spouse”, the wife of a developer working at Electronic Arts. Her husband routinely worked horrendous hours, up to 85 per week, with no overtime or compensation. Since EA’s stance on overworking their developers was one of “Do it or find another job”, ea_spouse had no choice but to air her grievances publicly on a Livejournal blog. The upshot of the whole deal was a class-action lawsuit awarding $15.6 million to EA’s overworked artists, and a similar settlement of $14.9 million to its programmers.

I remember this tale far too often in my working week – not because I am worked too hard; far from it – but because it’s what I am thinking of when I see the sallow faces of some of my Japanese students. They are usually engineers, but sometimes public school teachers, or salespeople as well. They walk in, tired as hell, showing progressively thinner bodies and prematurely-aged faces. Of course, the working habits of Japanese people are legendary. Long hours, long commutes, short sleeps, devotion to the company: a Samurai spirit, as some poetically like to call it.

I don’t believe a word of it.

Aside from those people who truly are workaholics, who simply love working, I’m pretty sure that most Japanese workers who show the hard-working gaman, ganbarimasho spirit do it not out of a drive from within their souls, but rather out of pressure from without. I honestly feel that this distinction makes all the difference in the world. For one, everyone is expected to work late (nobody goes home early unless gender, a family, or some other hindrance provides an excuse) and then everyone often goes home, all at the same time. For another, whether salaried or paid hourly, a majority of this overtime work goes unpaid and unacknowledged by the company, and it also goes unmentioned by the worker. And yet another: they are afraid to face their bosses when they do have such complaints or grievances.

I’m not necessarily railing against this culture, because it is a part of the culture of Japan to work longer and keep one’s complaints to oneself. It is indeed admirable to work hard if you are truly driven from within and want to achieve mastery of your trade. However, workers in Japan are still flesh and blood. My students are regular people, with fascinating hobbies that they say they can’t enjoy enough; with families who complain they can’t see enough of their significant others; with dreams of travel which will remain mere dreams since the only way to take a vacation longer than 5 days is to quit one’s job and then take the trip.

In other words, they are people with unfulfilled dreams of full humanity, unfulfilled because they are constantly being told that they should not – dare not – reach for them. This isn’t a matter of a twisted culture (so don’t say I’m trying to impose my own culture on the Japanese) but specifically that elements within the culture take advantage of its tenets. Employers, businesses, and governments throughout Japan know full well that society discourages complaining and resistance, and so these same groups can cheat and exploit people with little fear of reprisal, prosecution, and so on. Doctors in Japan tell their patients that 5 hours is all the body needs for a full night’s rest. I wonder how the experts reached that figure?…

Japanese people are biologically identical in every way to the average Canadian, American, what-have-you; and the look on my students’ faces and in my students’ eyes tells me more clearly than any doctor that however much they sleep just isn’t enough. It is this that has to change. Workers somehow need to make their voices heard again, need to resist the exploitation that companies effortlessly foist upon them. When I watch TV shows such as Project X, an incredibly fascinating and deceptively inspirational program on NHK, I am torn by two mental images that conflict inside my head. One is that of a post-war Japan, striving through technology and industrialization to become a superpower in the world. The other is of a mountain of skulls of the workers who strove and died to make this happen…

So anyway, I was talking to a student (whom I also consider a friend) today about his weekend plans, and he told me he would have to go to work on Sunday, just like any regular working day. I asked him whether it was because of an important project that they had to finish, but he said that project had been finished. Crunch time was over. He appeared now to be working Sundays, as well as Saturdays and regular weekdays. Just as a matter of course. Of course, for engineers (like my student) or game programmers, or any project-based workers, working 7 days a week during crunch time is “”normal”“, but there usually is the matter of time in lieu, compensation, an extended vacation when the project is finished, isn’t there? Yes indeed, my student said, his contract stated he could get extra time off at the end of a project, but apparently his boss doesn’t read contracts…

So, naively, I suggested he – contract in hand – simply ask his boss for this holiday, and ever-so-nicely point to the contract as a backup. He said his boss was a real hot-tempered type, likely to call him an idiot or lazy if he ever complained. (Or merely “asked”, in this case.) I said, no problem, just keep your cool and remain courteous, but explain clearly that this document which he had signed, and that a company superior had also signed, is a contract. It is a written agreement, legally binding, that both parties ought to – must, if you want to take it that far – stick to. The boss ought not to break the terms of that contract, which was written up not by my student but by his company, after all.

But I did of course realize the relative absurdity of what I was telling my student to do, so I said he could try doing this, but not be surprised if he gets fired (or more likely, transferred) for his temerity. It was at that point that I decided to tell my student the tale of “ea_spouse”, as a way of illustrating two things. One, that workers in America also fear reprisals for demanding their unpaid overtime wages (so Japanese workers are not alone in this.) Two, that the power of the internet: huge, anonymous communities that can send grassroots messages through word-of-mouth, can make a difference and can effect change, as can be seen in the total $30 million settlements from disgruntled EA workers.

My student understood this, but then went on to explain how a few workers in the same company as his did air their grievances about their employer on 2Channel (“ni-channel”, the largest internet forum in the world) a while ago. He didn’t tell me if the impact of this action was big or small, but the upshot of the whole deal was that his company forbade all workers from visiting 2Channel.

If you ever go to Japan on an English teaching job, you will eventually notice that your students often make mistakes on the usage of the words “overtime” and “overwork”. My advice: don’t correct them. For most Japanese people, they are one and the same.

Chris M. Covell