Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Why Japanese People??" Because Overwork Means You're a Good Person

The line is from comedian Atsugiri Jason--an American in the Japanese show biz. He uses it to poke at logical inconsistencies in things like Japanese kanji or omotenashi (hospitality culture). He's pretty ridiculous, but it's true us foreigners all have moments where we want to ask why? when the logic for certain Japanese behaviors escapes us, and our values are so different we can't connect the dots without an explanation.

When Yuya and I were back in the States this past May, we talked about Japan, and we were asked why. Why do Japanese people work such long hours? Why don't they go home? But Yuya could only say, "I want to ask the same question myself!"

The first year and a half we were married, Yuya didn't come home until past 11:00 pm. Every day. Why? What could possibly demand 4-6 hours of overtime every day?

We had a variety of answers. A lot of major Japanese companies prefer to only hire the bare minimum. If the workload fluctuates, 3 people could be expected to do the work of 10 (as in my husband's case). The phone might ring off the hook all day, leaving no time to do daily tasks. The formal registers of Japanese sometimes remind me of "Old Entish" in The Lord of the Rings. It takes a long time to say anything, true for phone calls and business emails. In Japanese culture, staying late is a way to show your dedication to your work. It might be a necessary step to securing that promotion. Japanese people also take a long time to have meetings. Yuya's were more like weekly 3-hour harassment sessions from his narcissistic, psychotic boss. So glad he got out of there. Even in normal meetings, the method of information sharing often involves passing out a handout, or looking at a Powerpoint, and then one representative reading it all word-for-word aloud, slowly. New information comes up, if at all, in the drawn-out discussions that follow. Talk about agonizing. It's the same story at our church. Since Yuya has become something like a deacon, he has to go to weekly Sunday meetings. And they last for hours! Every time!

No Japanese people I've talked to personally like any of this, by the way. As a foreigner, I'm outside the behavioral code of tatemae (polite exterior) and at both church and work often am the recipient of grumbles from the Japanese around me, "Not another meeting! Give me a break..."

So my why remains. Why do Japanese people continue to engage in and perpetuate that which they clearly dislike? What motivates them? Selfless individual sacrifice for the good of the group, because this is a collective culture? Hm, too simplistic. Japanese people are humans too, deep down they must be as selfish as me. The self-sacrifice must then also be in the end self-serving. To be well thought-of by others, to protect one's membership status in the organization, to avoid the threat of being left out, is certainly a very big motivator.

Then I read a Japanese article about severe stress in the workplace and the guilt men can feel for being made to feel useless. Guilt is the internal feeling of having morally trespassed or hurt another person. Shame, on the other hand, is associated with how others around you judge your outward behavior. It's easy to see how behavior in Japan is often regulated by shame, so how is guilt a motivator to put up with long hours and lack of personal down time? 

The article used the example of a Chinese and a Japanese company employee confronted with the situation of promising to meet a friend visiting from out of town, when urgent work suddenly comes up. The Chinese person would feel much more guilt turning down the friend than they would declining to help out at work. The Japanese worker, on the other hand, would feel more guilt leaving the office in a pinch than they would breaking the promise to 
hang out. The reason being, the Chinese have been conditioned to feel guilt about hurting the feelings of individuals with whom one has close ties. The Japanese have been conditioned to feel guilt about hurting the organization with which they have close ties. I like the word "organization" better than "group" by the way. As a translation of the Japanese word 組織 it suggests what we find in Japanese groups anyway: structure and purpose. 

Could it be that when people are evaluated based on their commitment to roles in a shame society, joining the organization in its activities becomes cast as a moral good? Being unable or unwilling to perform with everyone is a cause for guilt--with no one to blame for it but oneself. This guilt, and the acceptance of all-consuming dedication to work/organization, is carefully taught to the Japanese from elementary school. Chicken or egg? Is the labor force is the way it is because of the educational system, or is it the other way around? (This post goes into more of what I know about Japanese education as it relates to work, and includes a Japanese TV commercial that I think proves my point). 

Suddenly a lot of things made sense. People simply feel guilty bowing out of work first or leaving meetings before they're adjourned, for not performing up to par. I, on the other hand, like the Chinese worker in the example, have very little guilt associated with organizations. That's why I don't fit, I thought. This explains why I don't feel bad at all skipping church activities to spend time with Yuya. The world will go on just fine without me. I would feel more guilty about neglecting my marriage (a private matter) than duties at church or work (public matters). However, I'm probably least guilty when money or work is involved. My taking 5 paid leave days in a row might cause some corporate headaches, but I would feel much more guilt disappointing my family and cancelling the trip home than I felt causing "trouble" for my coworkers and students (why I should probably never try to start my own business). Yuya often mentions the shocking video footage of the Lehman bankruptcy, when CEOs and staff left the building throwing their hands in the air dismissively, some even smiling. No looks of guilt, no apologies or remorse that would have been a matter of course in Japan. 

This lack of guilt towards what should be my circle is an immense social handicap, I realize. Without it I'm not motivated enough most times to deny myself and show up, and thereby earn the rank of a "good, reliable person." I remain at best "dry" and at worst, "selfish." Without even thinking I decline to attend functions that a "good" Japanese person would understand at once are not optional. I was educated to never feel guilty for having more, less, or different abilities than someone, so I rarely feel guilt about job performance either. Underlying values are simply too different.

That said, of course, all Japanese people are on a spectrum when it comes to how dedicated they are to 組織。Some are more or less sensitive than others. With each new generation things are changing, but incrementally. Once, a member of a certain organization received strict criticism for some disloyal behaviors. I didn't think this person was being so odd, until I thought of how "un-Japanese" the behaviors were. I couldn't help thinking us foreigners do similar things all the time, and get away with it! There's a privilege that comes with lower social expectations, I guess, as well as a loneliness, even if no guilt. I suppose that is the loneliness a lot of Japanese try to avoid by spending time, life's most precious commodity, so generously on organizational membership.


Here is the Japanese article I mention in the post. Unfortunately it was removed from the site I originally read it on and I could only find it on this spammy site. I think it wants you to sign up to read the whole article. :(

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Beat the Heat: Wearing Clothes and Functioning in a Japanese Summer

Left: tight, short synthetic fabrics. Right: long, loose, natural fabrics
Ok, well maybe "functioning" is a bit of an exaggeration. If you're like me, once temps reach 32C (90F) and humidity gets up to over 65%, priorities slide from being productive and functional to simply surviving. At home, the wearing clothes part also becomes difficult. Sometimes there's nothing to do but lie on the tatami under the air conditioner, drink iced barley tea and tease the appetite with frozen blueberries. 

Yes, summers in Kyoto can be brutal. Temperatures soar to as high as 41C (105F) and the humidity is such that any movement is oppressive. There is not a breath of wind in the bowl-shaped Kyoto plain. Time slows and moments seem like lifetimes of breathlessness. In our east-facing apartment we awake once around 4 a.m. drenched in sweat to turn on the air conditioning. We can usually doze until 6 a.m. and the room is assaulted with the blazing sun and a cacophony of cicadas and rajio taisou (Japanese radio exercises) in the little park nextdoor. Night brings little relief. I sometimes dread going home from my air-conditioned workplace to my sweltering house. Our little air-conditioner is powerless against the relentless heat and humidity. This situation continues for about two-and-a-half months in the summer. Every year, the TV announces the hundreds of people who are admitted to hospitals for heatstroke and the number of poor old farmers carried off by the hottest days. The only relief is in the form of typhoons, which bring lower temperatures as well as heavy rains and winds that can be devastating. 

For most of us, activity, jobs, and life must be continued despite the aggressive weather. I must often put on clothes, leave the air-conditioned and de-humidified delicious artificial air and brave The Sticky. 

It can be a lot more bearable if you choose your clothes wisely! Here are four things I have found about wearing clothes in summer in Japan:

Natural fabrics are my friend

If it's got any man-made fabrics at all (polyester, rayon, Spandex, etc.) I leave it in the closet. I don't buy any "summer styles" made with these fabrics anymore.  I've learned my lesson and now only wear cotton or linen clothes, or blends (not blends with synthetic fabrics though). The kanji for cotton is 綿 わた and for linen it's 麻 あさ . If I could find hemp, ramie, bamboo, or other plant-based fabrics I'd love to try them! Cotton and linen are the most common. Recently, big chains like Uniqlo, GU, and H&M are advertising efforts to source these fabrics ethically. It's so worth paying the extra money sometimes, because both cotton and linen have drying, cooling, and deodorizing effects. When humidity is high, if your body sweats to control body temperature the sweat cannot evaporate from your skin easily, leaving you at risk for overheating even if the outside temperature is not very high. I appreciate any drying and air circulation I can get! Uniqlo has their popular Airism line of summer camisoles and bra-tops, which I like for when I need to layer, but they still can't beat natural fabrics in my book. 

Hang loose

When it's really hot out the last thing I want is fabric clinging to my skin. Sweat soaks it and then it's even more clingy, not to mention unsightly. I try to strive for a layer of air between skin and clothes over as much of my body as possible. Loose, flow-y tops and flared skirts, those trendy gaucho pants, and shapeless dresses are the best I've found. It's more ok in Japan to hide your waist and a wear a voluminous silhouette, so I don't feel frumpy. Natural fabrics also generally have a more "crispy" texture that helps lift them off your skin.

More is more 

I used to think hot weather=less clothes, but I've found the next best thing to no clothes at all is actually more clothes! 3/4 sleeves and longer skirts/pants really help shade my skin from the sun which does seem to blaze more directly and hotly here than in my hometown Seattle (there's what a different latitude will do for you). This has a cooling effect naturally, and longer lengths also give me more protection from bloodthirsty mosquitoes (I got four bites in just the 5 minutes it took me to take the photo on the left!). 

Add a hat

Yuya gave me a fun straw fedora hat one year. Not only does it complete any outfit, but again it offers some shade. There's a world of difference between the sun beating down on your unprotected head and the sun not beating down on it. Ha. Some Japanese ladies (particularly the more mature ones) often cover up completely with black gloves and sleeves all the way to the shoulder, visor hats and sunglasses AND parasols. I carried a parasol once but it's kind of too cute for me now although the shade was nice. A hat does the trick. 

So those are the things I keep in mind when I get dressed in the mornings. It's the middle of June now, and things are gearing up for summer. This year, I feel more prepared than ever. Bring it on! It's only 14 weekends until October...