issue 231 - May 1992
Illustration: CLIVE OFFLEY
Why I quit the company
Tomoyuki Iwashita had what many Japanese dream of - a career with one of the
most prestigious companies in Japan. Here he tells why he just couldn't hack it.
When I tell people that I quit working for the company after only a year, most of them think I'm crazy. They can't understand why I would want to give up a prestigious and secure job. But I think I'd have been crazy to stay, and I'll try to explain why.
I started working for the company immediately after graduating from university. It's a big, well-known trading company with about 6,000 employees all over the world. There's a lot of competition to get into this and other similar companies, which promise young people a wealthy and successful future. I was set on course to be a Japanese 'yuppie'.
I'd been used to living independently as a student, looking after myself and organizing my own schedule. As soon as I started working all that changed. I was given a room in the company dormitory, which is like a fancy hotel, with a 24-hour hot bath service and all meals laid on. Most single company employees live in a dormitory like this, and many married employees live in company apartments. The dorm system is actually a great help because living in Tokyo costs more than young people earn - but I found it stifling.
My life rapidly became reduced to a shuttle between the dorm and the office. The working day is officially eight hours, but you can never leave the office on time. I used to work from nine in the morning 'till eight or nine at night, and often until midnight. Drinking with colleagues after work is part of the job; you can't say no. The company building contained cafeterias, shops, a bank, a post office, a doctor's office, a barber's... I never needed to leave the building. Working, drinking, sleeping and standing on a horribly crowded commuter train for an hour and a half each way: this was my life. I spent all my time with the same colleagues; when I wasn't involved in entertaining clients at the weekend, I was expected to play golf with my colleagues. I soon lost sight of the world outside the company.
This isolation is part of the brainwashing process. A personnel manager said: 'We want excellent students who are active, clever and tough. Three months is enough to train them to be devoted businessmen.' I would hear my colleagues saying: 'I'm not making any profit for the company, so I'm not contributing.' Very few employees claim all the overtime pay due to them. Keeping an employee costs the company 50 million yen ($400,000) a year, or so the company claims. Many employees put the company's profits before their own mental and physical wellbeing.
Overtiredness and overwork leave you little energy to analyse or criticize your situation. There are shops full of 'health drinks', cocktails of caffeine and other drugs, which will keep you going even when you're exhausted. Karoshi (death from overwork) is increasingly common and is always being discussed in the newspapers. I myself collapsed from working too hard. My boss told me: 'You should control your health; it's your own fault if you get sick.' There is no paid sick leave; I used up half of my 14 days annual leave because of sickness.
We had a labour union, but it seemed to have an odd relationship with the management. A couple of times a year I was told to go home at five o'clock. The union representatives were coming round to investigate working hours; everyone knew in advance. If it was 'discovered' that we were all working overtime in excess of 50 hours a month our boss might have had some problem being promoted; and our prospects would have been affected. So we all pretended to work normal hours that day.
The company also controls its employees private lives. Many company employees under 30 are single. They are expected to devote all their time to the company and become good workers; they don't have time to find a girl friend. The company offers scholarships to the most promising young employees to enable them to study abroad for a year or two. But unmarried people who are on these courses are not allowed to get married until they have completed the course! Married employees who are sent to train abroad have to leave their families in Japan for the first year.
In fact, the quality of married life is often determined by the husband's work. Men who have just got married try to go home early for a while, but soon have to revert to the norm of late night work. They have little time to spend with their wives and even at the weekend are expected to play golf with colleagues. Fathers cannot find time to communicate with their children and child rearing is largely left to mothers. Married men posted abroad will often leave their family behind in Japan; they fear that their children will fall behind in the fiercely competitive Japanese education system.
Why do people put up with this? They believe this to be a normal working life or just cannot see an alternative. Many think that such personal sacrifices are necessary to keep Japan economically successful. Perhaps, saddest of all, Japan's education and socialization processes do not equip people with the intellectual and spiritual resources to question and challenge the status quo. They stamp out even the desire for a different kind of life.
However, there are some signs that things are changing. Although many new employees in my company were quickly brainwashed, many others, like myself, complained about life in the company and seriously considered leaving. But most of them were already in fetters - of debt. Pleased with themselves for getting into the company and anticipating a life of executive luxury, these new employees throw their money round. Every night they are out drinking. They buy smart clothes and take a taxi back to the dormitory after the last train has gone. They start borrowing money from the bank and soon they have a debt growing like a snowball rolling down a slope. The banks demand no security for loans; it's enough to be working for a well-known company. Some borrow as much as a year's salary in the first few months. They can't leave the company while they have such debts to pay off.
I was one of the few people in my intake of employees who didn't get into debt. I left the company dormitory after three months to share an apartment with a friend. I left the company exactly one year after I entered it. It took me a while to find a new job, but I'm working as a journalist now. My life is still busy, but it's a lot better than it was. I'm lucky because nearly all big Japanese companies are like the one I worked for, and conditions in many small companies are even worse.
It's not easy to opt out of a lifestyle that is generally considered to be prestigious and desirable, but more and more young people in Japan are thinking about doing it. You have to give up a lot of superficially attractive material benefits in order to preserve the quality of your life and your sanity. I don't think I was crazy to leave the company. I think I would have gone crazy if I'd stayed.
Tomoyuki Iwashita is currently working as a journalist in Tokyo.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7