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Home arrow Political science arrow Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty

Challenges at Work

Although sachi was able to pass the first level of promotion, she took the test for sub-section chief (kakarichō), four times in subsequent years and failed it every time. Whereas with the first promotion, her mentor had taken her aside during lunch breaks and given her practice tests, by the time she went up for sub-section chief, this mentor had moved on. Sachi explains:

In subsequent tests i had nobody helping me. They said, “Do it yourself!” Truthfully i don't much like to study. They handed me two books of topics to learn. They said, “study these.” I pasted things [on the walls] in the bathroom, i pasted them [on the walls] in the washroom. . . . The kids were still little, and i would get up after putting Them to bed and study, but i couldn't learn it. . . . I didn't know how to study. I only had a junior high school education, and i had worked so hard on learning sewing machine techniques, i had totally forgotten how to study. For the first time in my life, i tasted test neurosis! I just couldn't memorize it. The fourth time i took the test, it was really bad [laughs]. . . . They made it more difficult each year. . . . I was about thirty-six at test number four. You have to give younger people a chance at the test. People who graduate from college easily climb, but those with junior high or high school backgrounds. . . . It seems difficult.

In other words, the exam itself became more rigorous each year, so by the time sachi had taken it the fourth time, she realized with regret that the first time she should have easily passed.

At the very end of our conversation, in a low voice, sachi said to me, “Look, Glenda, if you don't have the education, you can't get easy work. No matter how much you want to do it, you can't put it in words on the test. . . . Tests are written. That was the problem with the tests for sub-section chief. I couldn't write essays. [and in those days they had to be written long-hand.] That's my weakness.” Here we see sachi's lack of education hindering her upward mobility in the company. Sachi's encounter with a sympathetic mentor who fostered her potential was a godsend, but after he left, she never found another mentor to help her to prepare for promotional exams that assumed a level of knowledge that she lacked. Indeed, years ago she asked me to help her to study a book on basic management techniques, which she needed for this exam, because she found it too difficult to read. Although the company gave her some chances to climb, the exam, which might have appeared to be a fair assessment of potential, was in fact a glass ceiling to her advancement.

After her relocation to the shipping center, in 1991 sachi was transferred to a sales office where she sent out product shipments to area stores. The job was very heavy work lifting boxes. Her fellow workers were almost entirely men. She noted she was told to accept the transfer or quit. She accepted. It is my impression that this transfer was in effect an attempt by the company to force sachi out, but she persevered. It was here that she injured her back, an injury that still bothers her today. At this location, there were four irregular employees and two regulars, including sachi. As a supervisor (as noted, she had passed the first promotion exam), she had a lot of trouble trying to keep the employees in line. She worked right along with them as supervisors often Do in Japanese workshops: “they hardly worked at all. Their work was halfassed. They ate snacks all the time during work, and they made lots of mistakes. someone wrote on one of the cases, 'Go home, you pig!' i cried when i saw it. Then i cut it out and took it home as a souvenir. But in the end, i made friends with that girl [who wrote the graffiti], and we got along fine. And i got them to move the regular employee who had been causing a lot of the trouble. Six months after that, the rest of them came around. I was even invited to the wedding of one of them.” This story was repeated in almost every place where sachi was transferred. At first she would meet with a lot of resistance but she would not back down, and eventually she would get the people to come around. She always kept her high standards, but at the same time she had a very personable way about her, which must have helped.

After ten years at the sales office, sachi was again transferred to a shipping center located in a southern suburb, where she had to interface with another company to ship products. This time it took longer to get to work; she would leave home at 8 a.m. And return at 8 p.m. Furthermore, her predecessor had made a mess of the situation, alienating the people from the other firm. When she arrived at this job, sachi was given the cold shoulder. She needed to use the shipping company's computer, but the employees would not give her access to it—they just sat there playing card games. Although she could sometimes use the computer in the general affairs section, she hated asking (“it was hard to go through the door [of that section]”) because it was a “different world.” She is referring to the fact that the people in the general affairs office were almost all university graduates, white-collar workers, a situation that made the office seem culturally a different world to her. The same was true of the cultural distance between the factory and the main office; factory workers considered the main office to be far beyond their purview. It was where the erai hito (important people) were located. “i did it [walked into the general affairs office], but i was so nervous. Nobody taught me anything [at that workplace]. There was no training. . . . That's why i loved making manuals. No matter where i went, i made a manual. Even where i am now. Manuals and kaizen [continual improvement in production through workers' innovations]. I'm always doing it. At first you ask people, but then it's a bother to people when you keep on asking. So i make manuals so that people can figure it out [without having to ask anyone].” Why did sachi love manuals so? First, asking for clarification is a nuisance (meiwaku) to others, something Japanese children are taught to avoid doing at all costs. But also, reading a manual kept sachi from losing face. She could avoid the discomfort she felt in having to go through the door of a Different social space where the rules of interaction did not come naturally to her and where she might face embarrassment.

In the end, the young women who had given her so much trouble stopped their bullying and went out drinking with her once a month, for which she used her shunin (supervisor's) allowance. Two of the girls were from nara, too far to make the train home after going out drinking, so sachi used to have them stay at her home overnight on futons on the living room floor. It must have been difficult for sachi to hold her own in this situation because although she was a regular employee and had been at the firm for her entire career, her educational status was low. The women she supervised were making only a fraction of her salary, yet most of them no doubt had higher levels of education. Sachi was one of a few in her cohort at this firm who stayed on and fought for her place when the norm was to quit and become a homemaker and later, after the children were older, an irregular employee. She was still a regular employee and hence a high-income earner, yet married with children and a supervisor despite her education; any of these things could have been a source of friction with her subordinates. As sachi put it, “women are pretty hard on each other.”12

At her last azumi job, sachi returned to shipping center work, but eventually all the shipping functions were amalgamated into one center far from her home, and she was sent to supervise forty part-timers at a new work process. There was a lot of overtime, and she was not getting home until after 10

p.m. A single woman three years older than sachi gave her a particularly hard time, so sachi would wear ear plugs in order not to hear this woman's biting remarks. She commented, “at azumi, there was a lot of in-fighting. Even to the end, there was someone who was awful to me. . . . Women are scary, aren't they?” She also alluded to having been ganged up on by several of the irregular workers who were her subordinates, out of jealousy. This time, however, sachi did not have the time to turn the situation around because, exhausted from her husband's death a year earlier (in 2005) and completely stressed out psychologically from the problems of trying to manage forty part-timers on her own, she opted to take early retirement at the age of fifty:

When i came home [from work] . . . , we did fight, but he did a lot of housework for me and he listened to me complain. Without my husband, if i had continued, i probably would have gotten ill from

The psychological pressure. I didn't want to cause my children trouble with no father and a sick mother. So i decided to quit. I worried about it for a long time, but i was able to continue because he was there for Me. I thought, “enough! It's enough, already!”. . . I had said it before, but the supervisors were a rather eccentric lot, the number of regular staff had decreased, my work was mostly with irregular workers as the mainstays, and i was given a huge amount of responsibility. [if i had stayed], the pressure would probably have gotten to me.

Particularly disheartening to sachi was the sarcastic comment of her boss when he learned that Masaji had passed away: “so now you've come into the money [hidari uchiwa]!”13 that comment may well have been the last straw for sachi. But before she quit, she voluntarily gave up her last ten days of paid vacation in order to make a big manual. To the end, sachi was interested in improvements in the work process, and she wanted her successor to be able to do the job more easily, without having to figure it all out from scratch. Over her long career, sachi had become an expert at the logistics of work flow and quality control, and it was this legacy that she passed on through her manuals. Sachi had thirty-five years of service. Her last day at azumi was March

31, 2006, and her last yearly income there was ¥6 million (about $52,000 at

¥116 per $1), more than that of the average male breadwinner in Japan.14 she told me wistfully, “if he were still alive, i might still be at azumi. I would be complaining to him. Remember, Glenda, you asked me whether we talked about the company at home. I would be telling him all about it—all just me talking [ippōteki]. . . . if he were still alive, i think i'd be telling him, 'today this happened and that happened!'”

In the end, what exactly led to sachi's early retirement? She seems to have made the decision based on three factors. One is the poor workplace environment, where regular employees like sachi must take on increasingly onerous burdens, managing large numbers of irregular employees as cost-cutting measures under the globalized neoliberal economy. Next, she suffered harassment from some of those irregular employees under her management, as well as from her immediate superior, who gave her no sympathy or support when her husband passed away. Finally, the grief from Masaji's death was fresh, and she could not bear the pressures of the job without him.

 
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