Back in the early 1990s, I worked for a little car/motorcycle company by the name of Honda. The plant in Marysville, Ohio, had some 6,000 employees at that time, including both the auto and motorcycle plants. Having just come from a relatively small air-conditioning manufacturing facility in East Tennessee, with an Accounting office of about 10 people, the transition to an open-office with a few hundred people in view at any given time was a bit of an adjustment. There was much to love about working for Honda, but there was also much to hate. The pay and benefits were excellent, I thoroughly enjoyed the Japanese ‘associates’ I worked with, and since all employees, even accountants, wore uniforms, I did not have to waste time in the mornings deciding what to wear. Those were the things I loved about it.
The things I hated were the feeling of being in the army. I was used to being able to run down to the coffee pot any time of day, but at Honda, breaks were scheduled plant-wide, and when the bell rang, the 350 or so office employees all scrambled toward the cafeteria to be first in line for coffee. If you were one of the lucky ones who actually managed to get a cup, you had whatever was left of the 10-minute break to drink it, toss your cup, and be back at your desk before the next bell rang. We were not allowed to have any food or even water at our desks. As an insulin-dependent diabetic who has problems with hypoglycemia almost daily, this was a problem for me, and I took to keeping a few peppermints in my pocket, which I would furtively sneak into my mouth as needed, hoping nobody would choose that moment to talk to me and discover my subterfuge!
I also hated the work … after spending several years as an accounting manager, supervising and overseeing the entire accounting department, suddenly I was relegated to spending 10-12 hours a day checking parts lists to ensure that every modification had all the necessary parts in the proper order. Each list contained thousands of parts, so most days only one or two got completed. Overtime, often 4-5 hours daily, was mandatory every day except Wednesday, which was called GHQ Day. GHQ stood for “Go Home Quickly”.
All-in-all it was a mixed bag, but the one thing I really did not like, and it is a cultural difference, so I hesitate to be critical, was the Japanese attitude toward work. In the Japanese culture, work IS life, work is the number one priority. A couple of incidents brought this cultural difference into sharp focus:
- My Japanese mentor, Hiro, had a wife, twin girls, 2-3 years of age, and his elderly mother also lived with them. One day his mother was cooking, spilled some grease, the house caught fire and burned to the ground. His wife called him at work to tell him about it and also that his mother was in the hospital with 1st degree burns over a large portion of her body. He confided in me a few minutes later, and of course I told him he must go see to his family right now! “No, Jill-san, I cannot leave my work or I will be disciplined”. He stayed until the end of the day, and was back the next morning bright and early.
- The Japanese have a habit of reading the newspaper and shaving on their way to work. I have seen this with my own eyes – they prop the newspaper against the steering wheel, then while reading, use a re-chargeable razor to shave. Obviously this carries a potential for disaster, and sure enough, one day one of the middle-managers, Taka, had an accident on US 33, the 4-lane divided highway we all traveled daily between Columbus and Marysville. Nobody was hurt, and the car was not badly damaged, but since it was a company car, Taka, the driver, was forced to apologize to all employees at the next Monday morning meeting. This is the Japanese way.
Again, I embrace cultural diversity and do not put down cultural norms, but I do admit that I struggle with the notion that work comes before all else, including family. That said, I will say that the company’s dedication to quality ensures that they make a very good car. Why do I bring this up today? Because the following news story caught my eye yesterday morning and brought back all these memories:
“The head of the Japanese advertising giant Dentsu has resigned after the suicide of a junior employee was linked to a company culture that required staffers to work huge amounts of overtime.
The company confirmed Thursday that its president and CEO, Tadashi Ishii, would step down after its January board meeting.
Dentsu, which employs 47,000 people and operates in 140 countries, has been in the spotlight following the suicide of an employee on Christmas Day in 2015.
Japanese regulators have found that the woman, Matsuri Takahashi, had been forced to work excessively long hours. The punishing workload resulted in her suicide, they ruled.
Takahashi had clocked about 105 hours of overtime in the month leading up to her death, authorities found.
Japan is known for the brutal work hours demanded of its “salarymen,” or office workers. Considered by many to be the backbone of Japan’s economy, these employees are expected to always put the company first.”
According to CNN Money, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is in favour of labor reforms that would curtail the massive amounts of overtime required of employees. This story, in addition to bringing back memories of ‘the good old days’, makes me think of workers here in the U.S. This is another of those issues that makes one want to look at those who complain about working conditions in this country and say, “Seriously? You think you have it bad … look at this!!!” I support many causes, including workplace safety, fairness in hiring and employment practices, raising the minimum wage, etc. And most workplaces today in the U.S. are not ideal … I have friends in many fields who all tell the same story of inequalities in treatment, no raises, bad bosses, etc. Still … as with so many other issues, we in the U.S. are truly lucky. We do have regulations about workplace safety and OSHA to oversee them. We do have a minimum wage, though it needs to be higher. And we do have laws that ban discrimination in hiring and employment practices. In many industries we have unions that guard our rights. Sometimes it does us good to look around at others and realize that, while our lives are not perfect, they are mostly pretty damn good! And in case you’re wondering — I stayed with Honda for the better part of two years, then moved on to a job that paid less, but offered a lot more job satisfaction.