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 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 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's response 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 that 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 reemerged 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.
The indirect nature of such tactics and the typically obscure reasons that employees give for leaving make it impossible to quantify accurately how much isolation and bullying is taking place.
Individual companies involved in these cases, as well as the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations and other corporate groups, declined to comment on such practices.
"I would say this [bullying] is probably not going on in most companies I deal with," said Minoru Makihara, chairman of Mitsubishi Corp. "But at the middle and small enterprises--which support a lot of the Japanese economy--a lot of this may be happening."
Labor leaders, job counselors and psychiatrists add that abuses have spiked as the economy deteriorates. Unemployment is now at 4.6%, nearly unprecedented by Japanese standards, while gross national product declined 2.6% last fiscal year. In one measure, a Tokyo government job center recorded a 60% rise in bullying complaints between April and October 1998 compared with the year-earlier period.
While Misuda has entered job-retraining classes at the government's "Ability Garden" school and feels strong enough to talk about his experience, others are not so lucky.
"The people expelled [are often] left thinking it's their fault," said Rika Tanaka, psychiatrist and author of a book on bullying in the workplace. "Many people become extremely depressed. They can't even tell their family. The last stage is even suicide."
Suicides Hit a Peak in 1998
Indeed, the suicides of middle-aged men stood out in the latest government statistics showing that more Japanese than ever before--nearly 33,000--deliberately killed themselves last year.
Suicides were most prevalent among those in their 50s, who are typically targets of corporate restructuring. Suicides by the unemployed, the self-employed and corporate managers soared by 30% to 45%, the government said.
In one case last August, a 25-year-old worker in Inami, Hyogo Prefecture, took his own life after months of apparent bullying. A complaint filed by the family charged that the man's boss had harassed him, told him repeatedly to quit and subjected him to hours of brutal criticism that drove him to a mental hospital and then to suicide.
In a note, the man said: "This is not a suicide. I was driven up the wall and murdered." Included on the note were the boss' initials.
The silent treatment and other forms of group bullying can be particularly effective in getting rid of employees because it's never clear who started the process, how it spread or who is ultimately responsible, experts say--even as it yields benefits for the company in the form of staff reductions.
"In Japanese society, it's often unclear who makes the decision and who assumes responsibility," said union leader Shitara. "Somehow the person is just isolated."
Toru Sekiya, psychiatrist and author of a book on corporate bullying, one of several on the subject now in print, claims that tough economic times have so undermined the Japanese corporate ethos that "some companies are even secretly pleased when [silent-treatment victims] commit suicide."
Bullying and social exile are powerful forces in part because the Japanese identity is more closely tied to groups, say employment and mental health professionals.
"Japanese aren't individualistic like Americans," said Kazue Shimizu, section chief of Tokyo's Central Labor Agency. "So being ignored or not given work to do means you have absolutely nothing, no purpose, no friends, no existence."
Many Workers Lack Support Systems
And Japan's strong work ethic--even at the expense of family--means Japanese workers sometimes have little to fall back on when their company rejects them, psychiatrist Tanaka says. "All humans are social beings and now suddenly these people have no group at all."
One important aspect of these gang-ups is that they would not be possible without the help of the victim's fellow workers, who often side with the company over their fellow worker in such cruel showdowns, analysts say.
While company loyalty may play a part, co-workers may also worry that they could be squeezed out next if they don't support the company's position, observers say.
Companies, for their part, have a strong economic incentive to tolerate or even encourage such psychological warfare. In Japan, fired workers are generally entitled to a month's pay and full retirement benefits, while those who leave "voluntarily" receive no severance pay and as little as 50% of their pension.
This saves tens of thousands of dollars per worker and shields companies from Japanese judges, who tend to go along with layoffs only in cases of bankruptcy or blatant malfeasance. Furthermore, companies on the losing side of a case may have to pay several years' worth of retroactive wages.
On the other hand, there is little downside for companies that engage in or tolerate psychological warfare.
"Of course, there's a law that requires companies to maintain a good, safe work environment," said the Tokyo government's Shimizu. "But it's rather vague."
Japan's 1947 labor law was designed to protect the common worker, who was seen as weak and helpless. Yet by overprotecting employees, it encourages companies to fire them through indirect and often more psychologically painful methods, because more direct approaches are costly and onerous, some analysts say.
Nor does society encourage people to stay and fight the companies, which would be a healthier psychological approach, psychiatrists say.
"Workers are often ignorant of their own rights," said Yoshio Morizono, a member of the Tokyo Managers Union. "And, of course, companies have no interest in telling them."