Cradle-to-Grave Work Ethic

In Japan, culture dictates devotion to work—even in the midst of nuclear disaster

By Katti Gray Apr 29, 2011
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Of all the heart-stopping tales of individuals banding together to push Japan’s earthquake-and tsunami-ravaged regions forward, one left HR consultant Jun Kabigting enthralled. It involved the executives and employees of a 204-year-old soy sauce company—its headquarters pulverized and partly washed away.

Tokyo-based Kabigting, paraphrasing, gave this summation of what the food retailing business’ president told 30 of 45 employees who managed to return to what remained of the company’s offices just days after the March 11, 2011, catastrophe: “We’re going to keep you on the payroll until we run out of money. And, in exchange for that, we want you to go out to the site and recover as much of the company’s equipment as possible.”

Recouping the fermenting yeast and bacteria used in making Yagisawa Shoten’s nationally popular soy sauce in Japan was the goal of the new president, who had taken over the company when his father retired.

“The employees would be scraping enzymes from the containers they found,” noted native Filipino Kabigting, president of HR Central K.K, a consulting firm, a decade-long resident of Japan and the head of the 450-member Japan HR Society in Tokyo.

“To me, it was just amazing. They no longer have a factory and really don’t know when they can reopen. From a business point of view, I think [dispensing more paychecks] is stupid. But, again,” he said, this is a clear example of the “Japanese employer-employee relationship,” which reflects long-standing loyalties. He should know. Kabigting is teaching a session at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2011 Annual Conference & Exposition in Las Vegas in June titled “Japanese HR Management 101: Understanding the ‘Japanese Way’ of People Management.”

Still On the Job

It has not gone unnoticed by much of the rest of the world that Japanese workers did not flee the crippled nuclear power plant that malfunctioned during the disaster and spewed radiation. And although the effects have yet to be calculated fully, employees remain on the job. At least in part, that decision reflects a rarefied sense of the shared corporate purpose and interests of employers and their employees.

While not exclusively a Japanese trait, such dedication as that displayed by workers at that power plant remains a prevailing characteristic of many workplaces in Japan, said those who’ve observed and studied how Japanese corporations and the people they hire behave. Japan’s comparatively strong employee-employer alliance—which, observers contend, is complex, complicated and slowly declining—traces back to the 1920s, officially. Lifetime employment policies were enacted in that era and believed to engender a bottom-to-top and top-to-bottom mutuality of corporate mission.

Those habits intensified after World War II, when Japan faced a labor shortage and labor unions ratcheted up their organizing, said Norihide Munakata, another member of Japan HR Society's board of advisors. “As a result, longer term employment and employment security have become a social value,” said HR consultant Munakata, who previously was HR director for the Japanese arms of several U.S.-based companies, most recently, Oracle. “[The] employer provides and secures employment, while the worker assures dedication is a core of this practice … [which] is based on mutual trust, understanding and expectation.”

Roughly 90 percent of Japanese workers are categorized as lifetime employees, said Japanese-born Shinya Yamamoto, a partner in the Japanese arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Mostly, people don’t move around much,” said Yamamoto, a member of the Japan HR Society’s board of advisors.

However, he added, Japan’s lingering recession is forcing incremental change. More employers are hiring temporary workers. Young workers, given the shortfall in full-time job prospects, do not necessarily expect to live and die on the same payroll. Even so, the largest and most successful firms continue in the established ways, Yamamoto said.

“The good companies—Toyota, Canon, Sony, Sanyo—spend so much effort and so much time and money developing cultures” of employer-employee loyalty, said Yamamoto, a former software engineer with an MBA from the University of Illinois.

“Many HR directors [from outside Japan] come to the Japanese and ask questions: What is the ROI? Their answer was ‘If you start talking about the financial payback out of this, that’s out of the question. Forget ROI. It’s not money. It’s something you believe.’ I don’t know if [new] shareholders are happy listening to that. But those who’ve held shares for 20 years or more also really believe in that.”

In what he and others say is a highly nuanced history of workplace loyalties, several factors come to bear: If, under lifetime employment, few people leave a company, those workers tend to develop a camaraderie and extraordinary familiarity with each other; it’s sort of like growing up together. In addition, given that respect for one’s elders is a central tenet of Japanese life, deference similarly is paid to those who become supervisors based on seniority.

Cooperating and coalescing at work is a practical matter, observers said. The regions hardest hit by the quake are largely agricultural. Those areas are a long-standing symbol of teamwork. “The farmers in Japan, with limited land, have made a living at that for hundreds of years,” Yamamoto said. “They know they have to work together to live.”

Complaints and Questions

Not that such particularities and adherence to established workplace policy and tradition always make for smooth operating. Yamamoto recalled his consternation, a decade ago, when Canon contracted him to develop and roll out new compensation rates for its 20,000 workers in Japan.

“There were a lot of complaints and questions for me and the HR directors. … The [employees] were not fully in agreement with the changes. I was not comfortable about it and told the HR people, ‘I don’t think they’re fully agreeing,’ ” Yamamoto said. “I almost felt [the employees] didn’t understand [the changes] at first. At the end, it was ‘I know Canon would not do anything bad to me and my family. But please understand how we feel.’ That was shocking to me. That’s a strong organizational culture.”

That culture often squashes even reasonable dissent, said U.S.-born Brad Corbet, managing director of Spectrum Consulting Japan in Tokyo. A member of SHRM, he has spent two decades in his adopted land, first as a military man, then a schoolteacher and now in HR.

“The Japanese ... are very determined and hard-working individuals and have more loyalty to companies and jobs than many other companies [elsewhere] but, at the same time, have the same frustrations with the same issues that every employee faces [regarding] company management, respect, work stress, bosses, company direction and strategy, micromanagement, etc.,” he said.

“While Japanese workers will complain just as much as the next person, they tend not to be as vocal [to their supervisors] on the issues. In most cases, Japanese companies here will always give their employees support and abide by the law when it comes to time off, but many often take advantage of the work ethic, … if they are sei-shine, or full-time employees with full benefits such as bonuses, they will easily work a 10-hour day and probably not ask for or receive overtime. Even a 12-hour day is not uncommon.”

That strikes a nerve in him, Corbet said. Japanese companies, he contends, can use some non-Japanese instruction on results-driven, effective management. Should Japanese managers really expect, as they do, that their subordinates never leave the office before the executives depart? Corbet thinks not.

Kabigting and Yamamoto recognize the benefits—and hazards—of some long-standing practices that have provided Japanese workers with relative job and financial security and, consequently, have stoked their loyalties.

“Definitely, Japanese workers are more loyal,” said Kabigting. “But there are more stress-related suicides here. Also, if they’re working 80 hours of overtime a week, they’re really being worked to death.But that’s part of the expression of loyalty.”

Undoing some excesses might be necessary, especially as Japan continues to struggle to get past a manufacturing-based, profit-driven bubble that burst in the late 1990s, Yamamoto said. “Some say that lifetime employment and seniority-based pay has to change. I disagree,” he said. “If you can keep the lifetime employment, that’s more beneficial. It leads to strong organizations and a better [work output], and workers getting a better life out of that in the long run.”

New York-based freelance journalist Katti Gray’s work has appeared in Newsday, Ms., Essence magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and other publications. She can be reached at or She blogs about the recession at

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