Friday, January 04, 2008

The Economist Does Shimbashi

This is certainly... different.

Later - smart folks are having a discussion in Comments. Check out what they have to say.


Lionel Dersot said...

Last time I was in Shimbashi at night, sometimes in Autumn, the place was certainly not oozing of nostalgia but reeking with the standard olfactive stuff, and pretty lively with salarymen of all ages having a good time or pretending to like it. And I repeat - of all ages. Am I entitled to write an article about how life goes on in Shimbashi these days? Or moving on to less ojisan districts, what are the young lads in cheap suits and slightly untidy hairs doing after hours in bunches? And since when (since passé "kokusaika"?) a lad working in a gaishikei is representative of the white collar workforce? How about the myriad of small and middle size corporations? You spend your life at the Foreign Press Club in Yurakucho Denki Building, slurping the delicious cold soup Vichysoise (do they still serve it?), and you call it Japan.

Anonymous said...

The food at the FCCJ is pretty disgusting, as far as I remember. Their sandwiches, their lunches,... horrible. And expensive (for what you get). But the coffee was so cheap!
But yeah, that's how you write an article. Talking to 3 guys and some few girls. But it's not that bad for the readers who know nothing about Japan. Abroad, who knows that the Japanese spend their lives sleeping on the JR's trains? True, the Economist's correspondent wrote good stories when it was about Abe-san, and Fukuda-san left him with no inspiration, but that's not the worst article he wrote. Those who live in Japan may be disappointed but those who live abroad are always delighted to get a vivid image about the Land of the Rising Sun.

Jun Okumura said...

This is an oft-told story, though The Economist, being The Economist, tells it well. A few quick caveats:

1. There was always a significant portion of the male labor force that never partook of the lifetime employment system. That may or may not be the core of an outsourcing story.

2. The explanation of the wage structure ignores the fact that non-star employees have routinely been shunted to subsidiaries and other captive businesses in their early fifties and even late fourties.

3. The insertion of "more women enter[ing] the workforce" is jarring, and looks out of place. In my view, the temps in the office are mainly taking on the work conducted by female employees, who used to usually leave the company at marriage (kotobuki takishoku), to have the first child, or when it became too embarrassing to stick around once your age cohorts had left. It is where women are increasingly competing with men for the traditionally male-dominated, lifetime jobs that the "salaryman" story truly intersects with gender issues.

4. Immigration is indeed a labor issue, but it is barely on the fringes of the "salaryman" question. Communication problems place a limit on the extent to which "salaryman" jobs can be insourced to the gaijin workforce.

Having said all that, I have to admit that this is much better than the mostly impressionistic salaryman essays that you see in the dailies.

And Id, I think the point of the Shinbashi ojisan anecdote is that they are not taking their subordinates out on the corporate tab. The "young lads in cheap suits and slightly untidy hairs" are there on their own dime. And they are probably single. Now those are sweeping statements that require qualification, but do, I believe, contain a large measure of truth. You have a point there with the gaishikei employee. Still, he is not unrepresentative of many (though, I'm sure, not a majority of) young white-collar collar workers. My caveat 1. partly reflects on your point about small and middle size corporations. I say partly because even in the large corporations, the early dropout rate for blue-collar workers has been traditionally quite high, if I remember correctly.

And french reader, I did not put it among my caveats because it was not particularfly relevant, but a certain blogger has noticed a decline in train-drooling and attributes it to 3G cell phone.

Jun Okumura said...

And by dailies, I meant English-language dailies.

Anonymous said...

Dear Okumura-sensei,
I do agree with your comments but it depends of the hours. The 3G cell phone is not used that much in the morning - therefore, you see dozens of people just sleeping - whereas in the evening time, you'll see more people frantically drumming with their fingers on their cell. (BTW, I wish you a happy new year!)

Jan Moren said...

Well, Id, it is a newspaper article, not a research paper; statistical significance, quantitative analysis and error bars would all be overkill and detract from the point. Interviewing three older employees, a couple of younger ones and a gaggle of school-age girls seem to me as amply fulfilling the requirements of proper sourcing.

"the young lads in cheap suits and slightly untidy hairs" may be male escorts (something like this guy?); the male version of club hostesses.

Jun, Good point about many people never part of the system. The "salaryman" image of white-collar lifetime-employed administrators getting squeezed into the Yamanote ringline trains is very vivid for many foreigners, but the actual number of these people have never been particularly large (I've heard a number of about 10%). Most people have after all always been working in small companies, in blue-collar or service jobs, or in the ever-amorphous world of self-employment of various types.

The article does mention the use of subsidiaries as parking spaces for substandard or surplus administrators. I wonder how that practice intersects with the "amakudari" system; could there ever be ambiguous as to whether a transfer is upwards or down?

Anyway, like Jun I kind of regret not making this a blog post instead :)

Jun Okumura said...

ID, you're right, I need to look around the morning commuter trains.

Janne, you have a thing for stories with demographic angles, don't you? The article implies that the company keeps you around till you retire at 60, then takes care of you after that until your pension kicks in. My point is that you are often farmed out much earlier, with financial consequences.

As for your question, big business employees are regularly rotated in and out for subsidiaries, but at the end of the line, they get one-way tickets. It can happen quite early in your life. This is the private sector version of the government's rotation system. My underestanding is that both have gone through profound revisions in recent years.

The blogosphere needs a forum where these kinds of discussions can take place.

Finally: Shisaku, smart and sexy, don't forget that.