Thursday, April 26, 2007

Near Termination

A comment by Androo (which I recommend everyone read as he tells an interesting story) on one of my old posts reminded me of an incident that happened a very long time ago in the early days of my employment at a Japanese office.

At my company, as is the case with many companies, the salespeople frequently sold services or products that didn't actually exist. They'd sell a course that we didn't have or they'd promise to do a job that we didn't have the staff available to do. More often than not, they'd press my boss into service and push him to do extra jobs on his days off and he'd always oblige because he was paid relatively well and felt he should agree to do the work. He was paid by the hour for any extra work he did or offered compensation time though so it wasn't as bad as it is for Japanese salaried workers who did those types of things and weren't paid.

At one point, one of the salesmen sold an in-company lesson to a place which requested an American teacher. Since I was the only full-time teacher at the time and my boss was Australian, I was asked to do this job. What's more, I was asked to do it on my day off. I would be paid my usual hourly wage but, as someone who was employed at an office, I was making a pretty low hourly wage compared to the going rate was for teachers who conducted in-company lessons. I was making perhaps 50% of what one was usually paid for such teaching.

The thing is that I was not keen on company lessons of this type as they were generally pointless "gaijin monkey" jobs. That is, you didn't actually teach but you went to the company and stood in front of between 30 and 70 students and entertained them with your foreignness for the duration. The classes generally consisted of games thinly-veiled as "activities" and the students usually spent the time staring like stunned fish or tittering and whispering to each other (or both). For the freshman company employees who experienced these lessons, this was a pleasant side road they got to take on the long, tedious, and boring highway of serious training for their jobs. They didn't take it the least bit seriously or expect to actually get anything out of it in terms of long-term English ability enhancement.

At this time, I'd also been back for only about 6 months after being bed-ridden with back problems for about 3 months and was not in the greatest condition for going out and standing in front of a bunch of people for long periods of time. Because of this and the aforementioned reason, I told my boss I didn't want to do this extra work that I was being asked to do.

My boss relayed this message to the then president. Before you get any ideas of a Bill Gates-ish fellow at the top of a huge mega-corp or an Akio Morita-type leader of a Japanese company, let me make it clear that this guy was essentially the head of a tiny business that thrived mainly because of the lavish and fool-hardy spending of companies during the height of Japan's bubble economy. Once companies began to spend more prudently, the company began to falter badly.

This president had no real talent beyond a few years as a decent salesman for a major publisher and knowing enough to exploit some tax write-off laws early on in the company's history to convince people that they could milk some of the money from the government if they bought our courses. Mainly, this fellow was lucky enough to marry a woman with a wealthy father who had lived abroad long enough to be considered untouchable by most Japanese men (back when such activity seriously tainted a woman) and to use the money he got to exploit the government's stupidity in allowing companies to augment the cost of basic English courses with tax dollars.

The company at that time probably had no more than 30 employees total and occupied a relatively smallish office above a convenience store in Nishi-Shinjuku. At this stage, business had been dropping off so I was the only full-time teacher and one of two full-time foreigners but we did contract out to other teachers to do in-company teaching work though they'd have to be paid a reasonable (¥3,500 - ¥5,000) hourly wage for it. Getting an outside person to do it instead of me might have cost the company $50-$75.

In terms of my work for the company, I'd already worked on several textbooks at this point and was solely in charge of doing a book based on the Voice of America news on an annual basis. I was also the only person in the office who knew how to use a scanner and Pagemaker around this time. I did all my work on textbooks on my own computer because the company was too cheap to pop for one for me. All in all, I was bringing a lot to them which they weren't going to get anywhere else, particularly in terms of my work speed, efficiency, and writing quality.

All things considered, you'd think that the president would see me as valuable enough not to dismiss over one refusal to do a job for several hours on my day off. I didn't realize it at the time but I'd come smack up against a cultural difference which nearly resulted in me losing my job. After my (Australian) boss asked me and I said I would prefer not to do it, the president wanted to ask me himself. This wasn't a big deal though because the president often asked the staff directly to do things. In fact, he often pointlessly called us into the office for dumb little requests, comments, and to discuss our pay statements each and every month. Getting called in by him wasn't even the emotional equivalent of getting called to the Principal's office in school so I wasn't all that worked up over it.

When the company asked me to do this job, I assumed that the request was a request. In Japan, this is not the way it is perceived. This was another one of those cases as I talked about in the post Androo commented on where the Japanese keep asking you until you agree. They expect you to realize that "no" is not an option and the "request" being made of you isn't a request. It's a demand phrased nicely. Should you fail to get that, they will repeat the request until you do.

At this time, I was unfamiliar with this style of communication and simply said "no" believing the type of employee I was was more meaningful than my refusal to do one little job on my day off. It turned out that my refusal was an indication of insurrection, flouting the president's authority, not being a team player, and generally making the president feel as though someone in his little fiefdom wasn't bowing down before him as she should. He suggested to my boss that they terminate me because of this but my boss, being a gaijin and knowing how good I was at the job and how hard it'd be to replace me (particularly in a small company that really needed someone with my skills), talked him out of it.

To be honest, I'm not sure I would have agreed even if I had believed that I'd have been fired because I wasn't sure that I was physically able to handle it at that point in time. Regardless, this illustrated pretty well how important it both is to understand the Japanese communication style and how loyalty is frequently valued more than ability and productive potential.


ターナー said...

Very true. I received training about this "phenomenon" when I first arrived in Japan, but since I'm usually relying on my instincts, I don't think about the nature of a request until it's too late. I'd like to blog about these cultural differences as well, but am prevented from doing so until my contract period is finished (already reprimanded for writing similar experiences).

Marie said...

I never had much experience with this, but as a high school exchange student and not a working stiff, there weren't as many opportunities for it. I can totally understand it, though.

What happened in the end? You didn't do it?

Shari said...

Turner: I think it's a shame that you can't write about such things because I bet it'd be very interesting. In my case, my company had no such terms and I'm not sure they could "find" me regardless since I never use specific full names or anything that could link me to them. My former boss, who offers me the freelance work that I sometimes write about, knows about this but I'm pretty sure he doesn't care since he agrees with a lot of my sentiments. We both suffered a lot at the hands of the former president.

Marie: In the end, I didn't do it and perhaps was better off for it in the long run. They stopped asking me to work on my day off after that and I continued on with the company for many more years.

Thanks to both of you for taking the time to comment. :-)

Emsk said...

Hi Shari, I've just discovered your blog and it's a good 'un. I love it! So I will probably make a few comments on posts, older ones as well.

I know what you're saying about cultural differences. I've been here for 9 months and am working for a big eikawa. I'm from London and in both our countries we're heartily encourages to embrace 'no' and the new mantra. We're told it's fine to say no and that a straightforward no is far more effective than a lot of excuses and that gives the requester more leverage. I agree, although in the interest of human relations it's often better to give a quick explanation so that the requester knows you've thought about it and are refusing 'nicely'.

Not so here. No more is it evident when the big schools peddle home study materials. And for a nation who find it so hard to say no I'm amazed their reticence to hear it from someone else. We're told to make sure they buy products and over-ride whatever excuses students give. It's horrid! I would love to elabroate, but I guess I should keep my trap shut for the time being like your first poster.