Somehow, things never work out like you think they’re gonna. Take for example, my plan, if you could call it that. I was working an office job in the U.S., and I concocted this great escape by which I’d run off to Japan and teach English to pretty girls for a year before settling into another “real job.” Tangentially, the dream also included laying on the beach, drinking Asahi beer, eating cotton candy, and improving my tan. So why I chose Tokyo, God only knows. Hindsight, as they say, is a bitch. Or at least I say that. Well, whatever, after a horrible year of teaching English, I somehow managed to interview and get a high-paying office job in Tokyo, twice. I’ve got good credentials, so people often mistake me for being responsible and able to get stuff done. Hey, just because it says that on my resume doesn’t make it true. And you know I was also pretty naive at that time, because I thought there was nothing worse than teaching. So color me shocked when I learned that working in a Japanese office is like that musical with all the singing, fake French people–miserable.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “That’s only two jobs,” is what you think. That and, “Ken Seeroi, though brilliant and ruggedly handsome you may be, even you know that’s not much of a sample size.” Okay, good point, but hear me out. See, there are some things that are part and parcel of working for a Japanese firm, and if you plan on working here, you’re gonna want to know them.
Job 1: The Small, Personal Company
So my first office job was a managerial position at this small company in a quiet Tokyo neighborhood. Real nice spot, with a park and trees and the whole bit. And on paper, the job looked great, because it came with a high salary and, well, okay, that’s about it. But the salary was high, so whatever. I bought a couple of new suits and this excellent red tie that I later lost in a karaoke booth. God, how I miss that tie.
Anyway, on Day One they put me in this little room with two middle-aged Japanese ladies. One was my immediate supervisor. She sat behind me looking over my shoulder. She had a bald spot on the top of her head, so I figured that’s why she was behind me. The other lady was my employee. I sat behind her, looking over her shoulder, although my hair is rich and luxurious. We did this for twelve hours a day. I drank a lot of coffee and went to the bathroom all the time.
But, you know, I’m a pretty positive guy, so I tried to fun things up right from the start. I figured we could use lunch time to get to know each other, break the ice, even do some team-building. You know, real corporate HR kind of stuff, just like in the movies.
“Hey, so what’s happening for lunch today?” I said. “You know, first day and all, how about we grab a bite at that cafe across from the park?”
“Gotta work,” my boss lady said, and kept on typing. My employee lady said nothing. She just looked at her hands.
“Well, okay,” I ventured, “How about ordering up a couple pizzas?”
Nobody said anything.
“I like mushrooms and green peppers,” I said. “How ‘bout you?” My boss lady stopped typing. Until then, I hadn’t noticed just how good the room’s sound insulation was, but it was really quite excellent. “Although I’m open to anything,” I continued. “Corn and mayonnaise? Octopus and broccoli? Sausage-lovers supreme?”
“I brought a bento,” said my boss lady. “Bento” is the Japanese word for a Tupperware full of cold rice, cold fish, cold boiled spinach, cold omelette, and a meatball. Though it really tastes better than it sounds. She resumed typing.
“Me too,” my employee lady added quickly. She still hadn’t moved. I was beginning to suspect she had a disability.
“All right, how about tomorrow?” I asked.
“Working,” said my boss lady. My employee lady sat like an ice sculpture, slowly melting into her chair.
So, having thus gotten to know each other, we worked another eight hours in silence in our little room, until it was dark and we all went home in turn: first the employee lady, then me, and I guess at some point the boss lady too, but maybe not. All I know is that at 8:30 p.m., I softly put on my coat, said a polite, “excuse me for leaving early,” quietly walked out the door, then ran around the corner to the first bar I saw and promptly got plastered as hell. It was Monday. I lasted there seven months.
Job 2: The big, also Personal Company
The next place I worked was an enormous room full of people. I figured a large company might do the trick, with a good mix of foreigners and Japanese folks. The only problem working with Japanese people is that they’re about as fun as sofa cushions; and the only problem with foreign people is they’re all weirdos. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Okay, so I do, but if you live here, you know what I’m talking about. Being in Japan for a few years has a way of making one strange.
At lunch on my first day, I went to the “lunch corner” of our enormous room and sat balancing my bento on my knees, since there were no tables. Two white guys and a Japanese dude were doing the same thing.
“Hey, my name’s Stephen,” said this white guy named Stephen.
“Nice to meet you.” I said. “Ken.”
“You speak Japanese?” he asked.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“I passed the JLPT 2,” he said.
“I got 92% on it.”
“Wooow,” I said.
“Hi, I’m Randy,” said this white guy named Randy.
“Ken,” I said.
“You married? Got a girlfriend?” he asked.
“I’m kind of between situations right now,” I answered, “if you know what I mean.” Actually, I didn’t even know what I meant, but it sounded like a reasonable answer.
“Yeah, I’ve got a few ladies myself. Check these out,” he said, and proceeded to give me an iPhone picture tour of the women he was dating.
“Wooow,” I said.
I looked at the Japanese guy. He nodded. “I’m Ken,” I said. He nodded again, mumbled something into his rice, and kept on eating. Then we all went back to work for another 8 hours. I lasted there six months.
7 “Features” of Working in a Japanese Office
Now, I know somebody out there likes their Japanese office job. I mean, people like snakes and spiders for pets too. Like, what about a puppy doesn’t work for you? But that’s cool, obviously everybody’s different. I even dated this one girl who slept with a ferret in her bed, so whatever. Damn furry thing kept waking me up all night. At least, I think that was the ferret. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah, so whether you like it or not, there are a few, uh, “features” that come with working in a Japanese office:
1. Expect to work a mind-blowing number of hours. Ever heard of work-life balance? That’s because you’re not Japanese. By law, hourly employees are entitled to paid overtime after 40 hours per week. To remedy this, the company will ask you to clock out at 5 p.m., and then to “voluntarily” continue working.
2. Forget cubicles. Get used to being surrounded by people that you try to ignore but are unable to. They in turn, will try to ignore you, only to be shocked when you blow your nose, look out the window, or breathe.
3. Are you a people person? Great, your co-workers will be incredibly friendly the first week. Then, having exhausted all possible conversation topics, you will sit in silence for the remaining years you work together.
4. You will learn to visualize success, as your boss, co-workers, and people you don’t even know come to you with requests. Soon you will have such a huge number of miscellaneous tasks that you could only complete them by working 100 hours a week. As people approach your desk holding documents, you will visualize successfully killing them with staplers, tape, and whiteboard markers.
5. High achiever? If you do an exceptional job, your boss and coworkers will hate you. Don’t do that. On the other hand, if you fail to accomplish everything asked of you, you’ll be considered a slouch for leaving before midnight. Learn what value lies in mediocrity.
6. When flu season comes, you’ll be surprised how well you can recognize your coworkers from the different surgical masks they wear. Sick? No problem. Broke both legs and you’re in an iron lung? That’s fine, just wheel your bed next to your desk and somebody will prop you up so you can keep typing.
7. Like money? Bonus! As in, you’ll get a bonus once a year, bringing your hourly wage to just slightly above that of a convenience store clerk. Want a raise? How 1990 of you. A decade from now, you’ll still be making the same amount, unless the company does poorly and your salary goes down. Better work harder.
Now, I don’t want to make it sound like working in a Japanese office is all bad. On the plus side, you’re not in an Antarctic research station studying icicles. That’s something. Depending on your workplace, you may have light, and heat. Those are good things, right? You may even have amenities like green tea, a coat rack, and a toilet seat that shoots water. You gotta learn to appreciate the small things in life, is all. But above all else, there is one priceless advantage of office work. Namely, that when you’re in an Irish bar—and trust me, you will be—and everyone sizes you up as an English teacher, you can be like, Teacher? Huh, no way. I’m a salaryman. They’ll all be like, Wooow. And that, perhaps, makes it all worthwhile.
Have experience in a Japanese office? Comment and share!