Module 12.5

Matt, Company Employee

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?

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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. 

  3. 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.

  4. 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.
Module 12.5
Matt, Company Employee
How to gauge uchi in large organizations

For employees of large companies like Matt, ‘uchi’ is actually a nesting set of groups, which include his work group, section, division, and ultimately, his entire company. Matt’s “base” reference at work is his work group. From this point all his group members are uchi and the other groups in his section and his division are soto. But if Matt is relating to someone from another section, (which is soto), then everyone within his section is uchi. In the same manner, when he is relating to someone from the main company (Tosan Motor), Shimizu (and all its employees) are within his uchi.

Module 12.5
Matt, Company Employee
Summary of Matt, Company Employee

1. Entry Point: Being a “Good Employee”: Matt meets his division-head, section-head, and group-head, Otsuka, who gives him advice by describing two previous employees: a “good employee” who attempted to learn Japanese culture and spoke Japanese very well and a “bad employee” who didn’t do either. If Matt is a “good employee” he will do well. Matt is intrigued by the company, which seems like a community which is helpful to its workers.

2. Helping Out: On his third day Matt asks the OL (office lady): “Does our section have a coffee maker?” She shakes her head and Matt then asks: “Is it okay if I buy one and bring it in?” Another group member answers that they have a vending machine that serves coffee and tea. Matt replies that he thinks instant coffee is a bit tasteless, and then offers to get a coffee maker for the group. Matt replies (he thinks tactfully) that instant coffee is a bit tasteless (mazui). From the response of all those located nearby he now realizes he has said something very wrong, so he ends the conversation. Later his Italian friend Sondro who had entered the company with him, explains what he had said wrong: He had criticized the instant coffee by calling it mazui (which also translates as ‘disgusting’ or ‘putrid)’. But the crux of the problem was that in calling the coffee “mazui” he was not only criticizing the coffee but the entire company—and especially those who drink instant coffee. Otsuka saves the situation by telling Matt the section will buy a machine—they have money in their research budget for this. Matt is ostracized for a short while, but his mistake blows over quickly because of its timing—Matt is obviously new to Japan and his mistake was unintentional. (For a similar problem see Janine’s diary entry regarding a broken stove, Module 9.1.)

3. Dealing with the Expert: Otsuka assigns Matt his first project, to work on a CAD design to improve one of the company’s flagship products, a part in the drivetrain. He soon realizes that Otsuka is his only source of information about the technology he is using on his project. Matt realizes that he has to establish a successful senpai/kohai relationship with Otsuka; and that if he is unsuccessful, his company worklife could be totally miserable. He watches the engineers around him interacting with their group-heads. Although they would sometimes raise issues and make objections, in the end, the superior would give the subordinate a direct order and he would respond with “hai wakarimashita” (meaning, “I will carry out what you said”), and walk away. Matt realizes that even if he disagrees, Otsuka won’t change his position. However, he also realizes that if he has concrete results to show his group-head, Otsuka will affably and easily change his mind. Otsuka is open to new ideas—but only if Matt can prove them concretely.

4. Uchi Hazards: “Service” Overtime: Matt’s first major uchi hazard is dealing with overtime, since no one leaves the office at 5:30. Otsuka initially tells him to leave, but he notices the silence of the other workers. Later on when he leaves at 5:30, they pointedly tell him good-bye, clearly as a put-down. He tries to work late, but becomes exhausted, so he alternates working late with leaving early and incurring the displeasure of his group. Only after being on the job for a year does he find out about the existence of “service overtime” (saabisu zangyo) from another worker who complains about it. Matt learns that this is an important rule that no one has ever told him about. Moreover, when he asks Sondro to show him this rule in the giant company rule book, he shakes his head and tells him this rule is unwritten as well. Yet if he doesn’t adhere to these rules, “the group will punish you.” “But how am I supposed to learn about the rules if they are unwritten?” His friend replies that he must observe his co-workers carefully and follow what they do.

5. More Uchi Hazards: Matt’s next major uchi hazard is upper-management interference in his work. Because Matt has shown progress in his CAD designs, he is now assigned to work on a high-level project in the advanced section of the Design Division. Matt finds the engineers on the project to be competent, but the managers seem very disorganized and keep making major changes to the design, which they then pass down to the engineers. Each change means that all the CAD models have to be redone (a process that takes hours for Matt to do). As a result all the workers on the project are totally overworked. Even though the interference is frustrating, Matt realizes that there is nothing personal here, since all the project members are being treated the same way. Sondro tells him: Remember that the designs are not yours, strictly speaking. You’re supposed to direct your effort (ganbaru) for the success of the company. In other words, the project was not organized around ‘I’, but around ‘uchi’. Matt gains much by his participation, both with his fellow members and with the high level managers.

6. Afterwork Ties: Moving beyond TatemaeAfter six months in the company, Matt has worked hard, stayed late, and become recognized as an important part of the department. But he has yet to make friends in his section, and felt like everyone was wearing a mask. He discovers the honne behind this tatemae when he starts going out after work with some engineers in another section. While eating and drinking with his colleagues after work, he gradually learns the behind-the-scenes (ura) stories that explain things going on at the workplace. They also share personal stories, and Matt is relieved that he has at last made some friends, and begun to understand the “inside” aspects of his workplace.

7. Honne Messages: Lobbying behind the scenes (nemawashi):Matt feels he has made some progress in his company. But it still bothers him that smoking is allowed in the workplace. Yet when he approaches Otsuka about this, he gets little response. Matt then goes to the division chief (bucho) but gets even less response. That evening, Matt raises his problem with his friends, and they advise him on a scenario to achieve his goal. Following this scenario Matt meets individually with every person who shares the workspace, and would be affected by the change, and sounds each one out on the issue of making the workplace smoke-free. Matt was doing nemawashi, which literally means “digging around the roots of a tree to prepare it for transplanting”. To achieve one’s objective in Japanese organizations it is important to initially lay the groundwork behind the scenes, before bringing things into the public arena. Although Matt had to spend time and effort doing the nemawashi, what he found out surprised him. Although publicly no one (including the managers) had been willing to support a smoke-free office, privately everyone he approached endorsed the idea. Following Matt’s nemawashi the employees had a week-long holiday, after whichMatt found that the division workspace had already become smoke-free. In this case it seemed that all Matt had to do was “turn up the soil”; others then picked up the ball and accomplished what was acknowledged as a common goal.

8. Honne Messages (2): Defeating the Bully  Matt has now become aware that one of the close cronies of his division-chief is a bully, and that he bullies a young engineer on a daily basis. This situation has made Matt increasingly angry. One week-end his division goes to a company resort, and Matt has been eating, drinking, and singing karaoke with his colleagues, when he notices that the bully, Saga, is there too, and has started to wrestle with the young engineer and is becoming rough with him. Matt, now a bit drunk, suddenly finds himself on the floor wrestling with Saga. At first he is pinned down, but he gradually learns Saga’s moves, and finally is able to pin him down and defeat him. Saga then becomes extremely angry, and asks if Matt is fighting for real. Matt assures him that it was just for fun.

Although Matt feels elated that he has humbled the bully, he is now very worried about the repercussions of defeating one of his superiors. But even though Matt was serious in defeating his superior in their wrestling match the context is very important in determining how the defeat is received by those witnessing the match, including Saga. The fact that this was a week-end get-together outside the workplace, that the wrestling match took place in public and that both Matt and Saga are drunk allows the honne message of Matt’s defeating Saga to be communicated without the repercussions that would ordinarily accompany it. Monday morning Saga approaches Matt immediately and apologizes. Matt also learns that his colleagues are very pleased that he has humiliated the bully. This was a great relief to him. (See how okaasan managed to tell her husband off in  another use of a public context for a honne message in 9.4.)

9. Unwritten Rules Again: Restructuring in the economic downturn. During Matt’s second year the company was struggling in a severe recession. A new pay-by-performance policy was introduced as a worker restructuring policy. This policy seemed logical and appealing: paid overtime (now an important portion of workers’ salaries) would disappear, but employees would be evaluated for their performances. As long as these were good, their salaries would increase, and they could leave the workplace at 5:30 to spend more time with their families. Many of the workers joined this plan. But in practice the workers actually ended up with reduced salaries and lost their compensation for overtime. Management often didn’t give positive assessments because there were no accepted criteria for employee evaluation; so they opted for getting more work for less salary from each worker. But the final straw was that the workers still had to work the same long overtime hours with no pay. The unwritten rules (of “service overtime”) were clearly more powerful than the written rules in the pay-by-performance plan. 

10. Growing Up & Uchi Ties: After three years with Shimizu Auto, Matt has been offered a new contract. But he decides that he will leave the company and return to his home country. In this case Matt is not leaving because he has failed to reach adulthood, but because his family has suffered a serious emergency and asks him to return. His large farewell party indicates that he has made extensive relationships in the company. His colleagues and superiors regard his CAD designs very highly, and it is clear that Matt is trusted by the company, since he is asked to work in many projects outside his division.. Matt could have continued at Shimizu Auto because by this time he has demonstrated his ability to achieve his goals from the vantagepoint of ‘uchi’ instead of ‘I’. 

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Part 5