Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

The Window Seat Was the First Bad Sign Japanese Firms Shame Workers into Quitting

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

The Window Seat Was the First Bad Sign Japanese Firms Shame Workers into Quitting

Article excerpt

TOKYO -- Under extreme pressure to survive, Japanese companies are relying more and more on a perverse form of restructuring -- bullying and isolating their workers -- at a time when outright layoffs are still socially unacceptable, legally cumbersome and expensive.

While bullying has long been evident in Japanese schools and companies as a form of social control, workplace experts say its use has never been so widespread or so pointedly focused on getting large numbers of people to quit.

Some see it in the darkest of terms -- a sign that Japan's once-vibrant and famously benevolent companies are turning much of their energy in destructive directions.

"The corporate situation in Japan is very rapidly deteriorating," says Kiyotsugu Shitara, general secretary of the Tokyo Managers Union. "This bullying contrasts with past decades when that corporate energy was a great creative force."

For Akio Misuda, 51, it all started when his former employer, a printing company, told him to sit by the window. What would amount to a perk in American terms spells exile for a Japanese worker suddenly pushed away from the group. Further pressure was then heaped on him to reinforce the hint that he should quit.

"They wouldn't give me any work," the chain-smoking Misuda says. "All my co-workers became cold. They wouldn't greet me. They refused to talk to me. I'd say hello to everyone, even though I was ignored."

Misuda was unusual. He refused to go quietly. Instead he challenged the forced "retirement" by joining Shitara's union. The company backed down, he says, but then tried to demote him and, a few weeks later, redoubled its effort to fire him. After more showdowns, "We made a handsome settlement," Misuda says. The terms are confidential.

A more typical response, in a country where people have long been taught to avoid confrontation, is that of Hideki Miyagawa, 40, until recently a supervisor at a patent law office.

As the firm's business deteriorated, Miyagawa realized he must be on a company hit list. Subordinates spread rumors that he was incompetent and was undermining group harmony, a mark of failure at Japanese companies. And they started ignoring his orders.

"I tried to tell workers what to do, but they wouldn't listen," Miyagawa says, speaking with great emotion even several months later. "If we had a [company] party, they'd all make a hidden agreement behind my back and all cancel together, even though some probably wanted to go."

Before long, he realized his mental health was at stake. Without another job in hand he decided to quit. "I was so scared, I couldn't even walk," he said. "But eventually the natural instinct re-emerged to keep on living."

Miyagawa's departure played into the company's hands by enabling it to reduce its payroll without expensive severance benefits -- a pattern seen across Japan. …

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