Maiko Tajima, formerly of KPMG, now working for the World Food Programme, explains in Diamond Online why the rest of the world does not understand Japan’s so-called “black” companies. As she points out, if a native English speaker heard “black company” they would probably think “black enterprise” was meant, ie a company run by someone of what in the UK would now be called “black or minority ethnic” origin. Apparently there’s also a series of novels written by an American author called The Black Company.
Anyway, the closest translation would probably be “sweatshop” but most in the West would think of this as referring to factories, or workshops, in the US or Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, and more recently in developing countries, and find it hard to believe Tajima when she explains that such conditions are occurring in a developed country such as Japan, in the 21st century. A recent survey of its employees by Sukiya, a late night restaurant labelled a “Black Company” revealed comment such as “regardless of night or day, put all your life into your work, and if you survive, then you get to give the orders next time” and “work until your nose bleeds and you faint. Then you won’t be able to say anything is impossible any more”.
She explains how this occurs by contrasting her experiences as a member of the boat club in Oxford and also of a fencing club in a Japanese university. In the Japanese university club, the concept of “sempai” (seniors) was strongly adhered to – she calls it a “caste system”. You could not eat before your coach and your seniors started eating. Practice was to see how much you could endure. If they felt you lacked “konjo” (guts, willpower), it was the collective responsibility of the rest of the club too, so you all had to sprint around the sports hall. Tajima did get results in her matches, but she is not sure to this day if the “guts” she had at that time has really helped her in her life since.
As a member of an Oxford University Boat Club, there were of course the early morning, 5:30am starts on the river, that had to be endured over several months, but the reason behind this was “doing what we had to, to win” – starting with the desired outcome and working backwards.
The team was multicultural – American, British, Indian, Chinese and Taijma herself, and teamwork was heavily emphasised, but only in terms of getting the team to be a winner – there were no bonds outside the boat club. You were also allowed to make suggestions as to what should be done. “It was not what you could or could not endure, just what was the most rational course of action in order to win.”
As she points out, in European countries such as the Netherlands, there is the right to leave work 2 hours early, if the previous day you worked two hours overtime, and plenty of maternity and paternity leave. The focus is on trying to have a “good life” both in work and home life, as part of government policy.
She thinks that the roots of the 21st century Japanese “black companies” lie in the kinds of behaviours described by Ikujiro Nonaka in his book “The Essence of Failure” – an organisational study of the Japanese armed forces in the Second World War – emphasising human relationships over rationality, and to strive for spiritual virtue, no matter what had to be endured.
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