Matt is an American engineer who has taken a job at Shimizu on a three-year contract. Shimizu is a large subsidiary of Tosan Motor Corporation, which designs and produces drive trains—basic components in auto manufacturing. Matt is pleased that has been hired as an expert, to work on 3-D computer simulation designs (his specialty). He is also interested in understanding Japan, since his undergraduate major was Asian Studies, and he has studied some Japanese. Upon arrival he enters his work-group, which will be his “home” uchi. But will he actually make the transition to being in uchi?
Matt’s employment uchi is more complex and more encompassing than that of any of the other newcomers. His company has several thousand employees, and Matt lives in the company dorm, eats in the cafeteria, and spends most of his time within company boundaries. He works in a huge makeshift office created from a large warehouse, along with everyone else in his section. There in a completely open space, each workgroup has been reconstructed spatially by the arrangement of desks. Matt notices that there is no privacy—each person can be seen at all times by everyone else in the entire section. But he admires the egalitarianism this seems to represent. Matt begins his job “inside” his company, in a very tangible sense. Yet while Matt in some ways actually “is” inside uchi, he must still take much time and navigate through an arduous series of “hazards” to actually “be” inside. But can he ever “get” inside?
How to gauge uchi in large organizations
Entry Point Challenge: Matt’s entry point seems straightforward, but it contains a hidden contradiction. Matt is pleased that he has been hired to do sophisticated engineering designs, and is intrigued by his company, which seems like a community that is helpful to its workers. But there is more to his job than doing designs, and there is more to his company as well. Matt’s basic challenge is his relationship to uchi. He must make the transition from ‘I’ to ‘uchi’, and faces the same kinds of hazards as the other newcomers in “growing up”. As a three-year contract employee Matt is not an uchi member. Yet he starts out in an uchi situation (his work group), and he is expected to “follow” what his co-workers do. In fact, Matt’s situation most closely resembles Devita, who is expected to behave as an actual uchi member (which she is). But why is Matt, who does not have an uchi position, required to act in the workplace (and deal with the uchi hazards) as if he were an uchi member? What contradiction does Matt face, and how does his situation help us to understand the employment difficulties of a generation of young Japanese workers?
Matt: Points to Take Away for Employees and All Newcomers
Matt is hired for his expertise in computer simulation design, and this was an important factor in his success in the company. Yet Matt’s experience at Shimizu also shows that no matter how brilliant his designs, if he hadn’t been able to adapt to the organizational requirements of Shimizu—meaning cultural adulthood—Shimizu would not have asked him to stay on in the company. Let’s look further at the contradiction that exists at Matt’s entry point.
- Initially, when Matt is shown to his office space in a huge open warehouse where everyone in his section works, he is impressed by the egalitarianism this seems to represent. Gradually, Matt realizes that a strong hierarchy is also present at Shimizu, and that this exists as well in his workspace. Yet Matt’s initial impression of egalitarianism is also real: the spatial lay-out of the office represents the nesting series of uchi within which each Shimizu employee belongs to. Thus each employee is simultaneously a member of a small group (his immediate uchi reference point), which is also encompassed within a larger uchi (his section). The section uchi in turn is encompassed within a third uchi (his division). These nesting (and shifting) reference points work the same way for everyone.
- Matt differs from many of the other members of his section in being a contract employee: the majority of his section members are regular employees. He has no real position in uchi. Yet he has entered a workspace—a workgroup and a company section—where everyone is a member of uchi, and where this is also represented in the organization of the work itself. Thus he is literally “in” uchi; just like he is in the uchi workspace; even if he is not an uchi member. Matt's location creates hazards for him, due to expectations that will comply with the underlying uchi prganization of ther workplace, since it is impossible to make exceptions for him (just as it is impossible to put up a partition for an office for him only in the large open room where everyone works.) Thus saabisu zangyo, (unpaid overtime) which can be seen as a quid-pro-quo for permanent employees who are expected to work “all-out” for the company in return for the security of permanent employment. However, this is contradictory for Matt, since he can be let go. There is no rationale for him to do unpaid overtime, yet there is also no way for him to be exempted it from this without damaging relationships within the workgroup. Thus an underlying contradiction exists at Matt’s entry point: He must behave as though he is a member of uchi, and will be treated as a member in terms of workplace practices and rules. Yet Matt’s uchi membership “expires” in three years, unless his contract is renewed.
- In actuality, Matt’s section colleagues are not exempt from the same contradictions Matt experiences. After the bursting of a huge real estate bubble in 1989, followed by a recession and deflation (now two decades long), many Japanese companies “restructured” by adopting practices promoted by the Koizumi administration, which focused on individually-oriented plans for rationalizing workplace productivity imported from Britain and the U.S. But trying to introduce an individually-based employment system without first changing the uchi-based premises that already existed in these companies has produced considerable contradictions. For example, Shimizu employees are now required to work as if they were in an uchi-based system, but their required overtime is now unpaid, and they are subject too work "evaluations" that no longer produce the salary increases they once did. These employees are caught in ther cracks between two systems and end up experiencing the worst both.
- Matt’s situation at Shimizu thus leads us to something larger that is happening in the Japanese employment system. Permanent employment is increasingly difficult to find. Under the guise of “restructuring” and improving productivity, increasing numbers of workers have been hired without uchi membership. They are “freeters”, “paahto” (part-time), or hakken (dispatch) workers. But all these labels point to a single distinction: these employees have no real membership in uchi. Consequently, their salaries are low, and their benefits and pensions low-to-non-existent. Moreover, these “irregular workers” must often function in the same way as if they were uchi members, in the same way as the "regular" employees. Yet they have no future in the company. While Matt is caught in these same contradictions at Shimizu, his advantage is that he can much more easily go elsewhere. Yet even so, will Matt easily be able to land an entry level job with a good salary, decent benefits, and good prospects for promotion in the U.S. or Britain? The contradictions faced by “irregular” workers without uchi membership should now strike sympathetic chords among their counterparts in many parts of the world far beyond Japan.