Staffing a hotline for victims of abusive bosses, Yasuko Okada has heard it all -- from complaints about one manager who would communicate only by e-mail to another who kicked, slapped and ridiculed a worker in front of clients.
Meanness, she says, is increasingly a sign of the times in this country.
Though relations between superiors and subordinates in Japan have long been strict by Western standards, Okada and other workplace watchers say the pressure of the nation’s economic slump is turning a growing number of middle managers into office bullies.
“There have always been aggressive, heavy-handed managers,” Okada said. “What’s different now is that pressure and job insecurity are bringing out the worst in otherwise normal people.”
The phenomenon reflects the bitterness of a generation of Japanese workers who joined their companies expecting that loyalty and dedication would guarantee them a job for life.
That was before the world’s second-largest economy fell stagnant a decade ago, pushing unemployment to a record 5% and forcing middle managers in their 40s and 50s to look over their shoulders when they’re not handing out pink slips themselves.
The frustrations are reflected on the job.
Responding to an increase in workplace disharmony related to downsizing, Japan’s Labor Ministry launched a dispute resolution system two years ago. It handled more than 6,000 complaints about bullying in fiscal 2002, a 25% increase from its first full year. It has successfully mediated only about 200 cases.
Since Okada opened the hotline, her company, Cuore, has heard from more than 1,200 people. About half were men, and many of the women were calling on behalf of husbands or sons.
“These people feel demoralized and humiliated,” Okada said. “But in this economy many of them are too scared to quit.”
Shin Kurosawa finally did quit -- when his hands trembled so badly he could barely type and he was diagnosed as having depression.
Kurosawa, 26, said he started to be bullied by his 56-year-old manager shortly after joining an affiliate of a major electronics company.
“Every day it was like, ‘It’s your fault this company isn’t growing.’ ‘You’re dead weight.’ ‘You’re just making work for the rest of us’ -- always in a loud enough voice for the whole floor to hear,” said Kurosawa, who quit a year later.
Japanese courts have ruled that bullying violates employees’ constitutional right to be “respected as individuals” and employers’ contractual obligations to provide a safe workplace.
But going to court is not a realistic option for many in a country where trials are notoriously slow and costly and the resulting controversy could jeopardize a plaintiff’s chances of finding another job.
“People are apt to just suffer in silence,” said Yoshiaki Usui, a lawyer who specializes in labor cases.
There’s also scant evidence that recent media coverage of supervisors’ harassment has affected the attitudes of those in corporate Japan with the power to harass.
“It’s like back before sexual harassment became a big issue in this country,” said Hifumi Murakawa, a human resources manager at Recruit, a publishing company. “Most people who engage in this sort of behavior probably don’t feel like they’re doing anything wrong.”