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The myth of the industrious Japanese worker

Go to a pachinko (Japanese pinball) parlor anywhere in Tokyo on a weekday afternoon. It's almost certain to be packed with salarymen _ white-collar workers _ clad in dark suits and ties.

Drop in at a sauna. Here, too, you'll find many middle-age men. Coffee shops are also full of people who appear to be office workers.

To tell you the truth, I happen to be one of them.

After we take a break, we all go back to the office before 5 p.m., the nominal closing hour as in the West, and work overtime until late at night.

The bosses are well aware of what's going on. And that's why we devote ourselves to "service overtime," or overtime work without pay, and no one revolts.

Hence, the myth that Japanese work hard and put in long hours continues to prevail. But what's disturbing us these days are the words spoken by Japanese politicians.

Yoshio Sakurauchi, speaker of the Lower House of the Diet, or parliament, and Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa recently made critical remarks about American workers, angering Americans and making us Japanese feel sort of superior.

I don't know what the leaders are really thinking, but what I know is that we're not such a "powerful working force" as the politicians are apparently hinting at. After all, we know better than anyone else that we're not working overtime out of a real sense of devotion to our work.

If only there were a few more employees to share the workload, we could finish the work within the prescribed working hours.

If we stopped loafing and worked seriously during the day, we could leave at closing time.

Sure, but we cannot leave the office before the boss leaves anyway. Under such circumstances we can feel as though we're all working hard when we carry over the daytime work to night.

The fact is, companies are trying to pinch pennies and save labor costs by making us work excessively with minimum manpower.

Everyone knows that. But that's the way our country has been operating and the only way we can make a living. Otherwise, how can we survive the competition with others? We can't help it.

Of course, we never speak such thoughts out loud. Speaking out achieves no good and might sometimes be harmful. Instead, we get rid of stress by lashing out at Americans over a drink with colleagues, after we wrap up our overtime work.

"You know, the politicians are right," we tell each other.

"Those Americans, all they do is make demands and never get down to serious work. No wonder they can't sell their cars."

It must be easy sledding for executives of companies that are supported by workers like us. Even if unions demand higher wages, the bosses know we'll never really go on strike. Either they'll raise our salaries by a sliver, claiming the raise is "on par with other companies," or in a year like this when the economy is slowing down, they agree to shorten working hours instead of giving us a raise.

And union officials are easily satisfied by such policies.

Companies don't have anything to lose even if they agree to reduce working hours.

If they would exercise stricter management so that we stop loafing during the day and get down to work, then the jobs would be completed without overtime.

"At any rate," many say, "our country is poor in natural resources. There's no other way to win the race with foreign countries than to work hard." How can anyone refute such an argument? Thus, Japan's company-oriented society has been running at full speed.

But it's the stupid remarks by politicians who continue to say foreign workers that don't behave like ourselves are no good that's causing trouble, whether they know it or not.

If we Japanese workers reduce our working hours to the same level as our American, British and German counterparts and come to enjoy overseas vacations like them, the international competitiveness of Japanese companies that politicians and some company executives boast of will drop considerably.

Why doesn't such a situation _ a nightmare for the bosses and an unreachable dream for us salarymen _ ever come true?

Japan's various policies, including its tax system, has worked favorably for businesses, making it easier for companies to reserve profits. In other words, it has been a national policy to fatten companies at the sacrifice of the workers.

One easy-to-understand example is wages. I read a newspaper story about an international comparison of hourly wages between Japanese and American workers. It said that at the current exchange rate, the hourly wages of American workers is 90 percent of what Japanese workers earn.

But a different story said that when the wages are converted into actual buying power, American workers earn 153 percent of what Japan's workers earn. The second story better reflects our actual feeling. True, they pay us high salaries. But they make us spend even more money to buy expensive goods.

And it's not only commodities that are expensive. When we take into account such expenses that we can't economize on, such as schooling and other educational expenses, our salaries shrink even further.

I spent three years working in our New York office and was surprised to find that such public facilities as sports fields, parks and children's playgrounds are in much better condition than those in Japan.

As far as I know, such facilities that are meant to improve the quality of life are built with taxes in Europe and the United States.

But in Japan, the people often have to pay the costs for such things from their own pockets. Still they try to convince us that our salaries are high, but how can we accept the fact without feeling that we've been tricked?

How much longer do Japanese politicians and company executives intend to throw their weight about when the international community continues to criticize Japan, saying its companies are getting rich at the expense of the employees?

My, I didn't realize it was getting this late.

Oh well, I'll spend a little more time here before I wrap up the work and board the commuter train.

After being jostled in the crowded train for an hour or so, I'll trudge the road home late at night, just as I did the night before, telling myself, "It's too bad. But what can we do?"

Yasuhiro Kobayashi is an editorial page writer for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's most respected newspaper.

Distributed by New York Times Special Features