Friday, October 12, 2007


Continuity tends to make people feel secure and comfortable. In fact, most people feel the greatest level of overall content when they have a routine punctuated by enjoyably novel experiences. If you have too much routine, you get bored. If there's too much novelty in your life, you'll feel stressed and like your life is out of control. One of the (many) reasons moving to another country can be so stressful is that there is far too much novelty all at once and very little familiar daily routine.

There are larger types of continuity beyond our daily experiences. When you operate mainly on the level of a teacher in Japan, you don't tend to witness them because you're removed from a lot of what happens on other levels in Japanese life. You mainly witness the evolution (or devolution) of your students and your growing rapport and comfort with them. In my private lessons, this is certainly the case and it can be very gratifying because the way in which I have contributed to my students' achievement of their goals is crystal clear.

In my former job, I rarely taught the same student twice so I almost never saw any real growth in skills. Additionally, the nature of my contact with students was more of a short-duration testing via phone rather than an attempt to "teach" them. However, there was a type of continuity which I witnessed which has been rather interesting. That type of continuity change was in the corporate patterns for the various companies my students worked for.

The way my former company worked was to sell various lesson and testing packages to companies to allow them to either educate or level test their employees. It wasn't unusual for my company to repeatedly sell the same content to the same company for over a decade as companies tended to buy our services for new employees. That means I would get a yearly update on the state of the various companies my students were working at. Since I asked the same questions over and over of different people, it was a bit like polling thousands of employees at the same company over a long period of time.

This type of interviewing could be very educational because one could learn a lot about the working conditions and popular products among various companies. I know for a fact that not all Japanese people work overtime and that some of those that do are actually paid for their overtime hours. This flies in the face of the commonly-held notion that all Japanese work tons of overtime and it's all unpaid. It also became clear which industries had a high concentration of female employees and which mainly recruited men as well as demonstrated which places gave women lower-paying work with little responsibility.

While I don't want to give any company names out, I can say that companies that produced personal care items recruited the most women and gave them better positions. They also seemed to have better English speakers. The heavy industries and companies that mainly produced components that were sold and used to assemble more sophisticated products elsewhere (car parts, computer components) unsurprisingly focused more on men and demonstrated poorer English skills though they weren't as poor as those who worked at companies that mainly provided services domestically. In fact, sometimes I couldn't understand why companies that mainly served domestic needs even bothered to train their employees in English. I concluded that the absolute best place to work for Japanese people when it came to overall working conditions (limited overtime, paid overtime, equal treatment of men and women) was their major phone company.

There were several predictable overall changes in various companies as the years wore on. The most obvious was that companies were doing more poorly on the whole and downsizing. Up until recently though, I hadn't experienced any company that had done any large scale or obvious outsourcing though my husband did teach classes at a company at one point that was having a lot of its business siphoned off by workers in India.

At any rate, a company that I had dealt with for quite a few years ago recently seems to have changed its hiring situation such that the workforce is mixed with employees from the Philippines and Japan. This situation is rather different than the usual outsourcing which involves breaking off a chunk of ones business and sending it to another country. In this case, Japanese employees will be working side-by-side with people from another country. This is an interesting development mainly because it's exactly the sort of thing which is going to continue fueling the English language study industry. These people are employed by a Japanese company but because of cost-cutting methods are going to have to accommodate foreigners by speaking English. In the past, most of the mixed work environments I've heard of were the opposite situation; a foreigner has to learn Japanese in order to accommodate Japanese employees and employers.

It's interesting to consider that outsourcing may actually motivate the Japanese to learn to understand and communicate more with foreigners. With the diminishing base of young Japanese people to fill out the work force as the older generation retires in droves, working side by side with more foreign people, particularly those who will work at lower wages than the average Japanese person, makes a lot of sense for businesses. To be honest though, I never thought this sort of thing would actually happen in Japan and was surprised that a major company has made this move. It's an encouraging sign of increased Japanese openness and flexibility though the positive side is tempered somewhat by the fact that the foreigners in this situation will all be subordinate to the Japanese bosses.


Miko said...

You have a very interesting view into the "other" side of Japan regarding foreign workers, one that most (middle-class) Japanese people rarely get to see. The inner city Japanese high school that my son attended had a surprisingly high number of foreign students, mainly from other parts of Asia, and quite a few of them were moonlighting as lowly, underpaid factory workers. It was through them that I learned that certain key industries in Kobe are *extremely* reliant on foreign labour - legal or otherwise - and might even collapse without it, and that this has been going on for much longer than most people realise.

Aside of that, I've seen work conditions slowly get worse for my Japanese friends in Japanese firms, even those in big, brand-name companies. It seems that the only safe job nowadays is in the public sector.

(I've also noticed that for Japanese women, foreign companies usually offer far better working conditions - for example, female employees aren't obliged to quit upon marriage - but expect a much higher level of English.)

Honestly speaking, as little as a decade ago if you asked the average Japanese company employee how she felt about working side-by-side with foreigners, the answer would be "I wouldn't like it very much." It's very interesting that the same people nowadays have no choice in the matter.

Emsk said...

A very interesting piece. Over the eyars I've read that japan will have to recruit more 'foreign' workers to cope with the ageing population. I do think Japan has a long way to go before words like 'foreigner' aren't in common use.