Cheat-Seeking Missles

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Suicidal Japanese And Entrenched Government

I remember Japanese businessmen from my youth in Tokyo: Raising early, squeezing themselves into trains and subways, returning late at night, often drunk, only to have to rise again the next day to face the same drudgery again.

Comparing the Japanese "salary man" of the 1960s to American businessman, the call is clear: We definitely are the more balanced bunch. Now I learn from the Times of London that things have gotten much worse in Japan:

The rapid spread of Western business practices in Japan has caused widespread mental illness and is responsible for a deepening demographic crisis, government officials say.

Statistics indicate that 60 per cent of workers suffer from “high anxiety” and that 65 per cent of companies report soaring levels of mental illness. ...

Directors of the Japanese Mental Health Institute blame the same factors for rising levels of depression among workers and the country’s suicide rate, which remains the highest among rich nations.

Merit-based pay and promotion are of particular concern because they are at odds with the traditional system, built on seniority, that has reigned supreme in corporate Japan. In the harsh new atmosphere of cut-throat rivalry between workers, the Institute for Population and Social Security argues, young people do not feel financially stable enough to start families.

The trend is put down to Japanese companies’ attempts to globalise by adopting working practices more closely in line with US and British models. Larger numbers of temporary staff, a greater willingness to sack people and greater pay disparities are the downside.

A spokesman for the Mental Health Institute said that the emphasis on individual performance was driving Japanese workers — particularly those in their thirties — to mental turmoil. “People tend to be individualised under the new working patterns,” he said. “When people worked in teams they were happier.”

Japan's society has a web structure: Everyone is connected to everyone else, and there's a stickyness to the society that goes beyond mere cohesion to a common sense of being trapped. In such an environment, individualism rarely if ever shows itself .

For whatever reason, Japanese companies appear to be going against thousands of years of history and suddenly embrace the individual -- and there appear to be unintended consequences to their effort.

I'm also struck by the parallels of the frustrated, suicidal Japanese businessman and the archetypical American government employee. Neither is at all keen on competition; neither wants to stand out and take the risks inherent with individual action. Both want to hide behind committees and are more concerned with process than results. Results, after all, bring judgment and even the ends of programs.

What hope do we have, then, of ever streamlining American government? American employees would be much less likely to kill themselves in frustration; their strategy would be typically American: sue the bastards or kill the bastards.

We probably won't be seeing more efficient government anytime soon.

Photo:, Graphic: Times of London

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