Quick, look busy!

Japan is famous globally for its efficiency.  The statistics regarding productivity and timeliness from this culture are astounding.  The country runs on certain standards – respect and tradition are probably two of the most highly regarded qualities exemplified by the majority of the Japanese workplace.  While much of the praise Japan earns it certainly deserves, I’ve also found that a ton of the other “efficiency tactics” used within this culture can just be summed up as: Japanese people are masters at appearing busy.

Japanese OfficeImage via Peter-Rabbit on Flickr

This is present in every industry, and it is often something physically visible.  Sure, we Americans pride ourselves on our lightning speed window-minimizing abilities when the boss walks by our computer, but the Japanese take busy-ness to a new level.  Let’s start at one of the easiest-to-spot industries: retail and services.  Department store workers are a shining example.  When they aren’t shouting at passerby on the street or actually making a sale, retail staff are cleaning, arranging, and fixing things at a frenzied pace.  Often times they may also periodically yell at customers as they perform these tasks.  They dress and re-dress mannequins, move stock from one shelf to another, dust constantly, and clean windows meticulously.  Staff at restaurants where the customer is supposed to dispose of their own tray will jump to you as soon as you stand up with the remnants of your meal in hand, usually yelling “o-sore iremasu!” while taking the tray to the exact same place you were about to.

Every once in a while in a while, I, in all my large, clumsy gaijin-ness, will knock over items in a store.  Staff teleport from the walls in seconds spluttering that they will retrieve the item, and I can leave it to them.  I like to think that they are actually just horrendously, horrendously bored, so part of me often feels tempted to just walk through stores knocking things over and leaving things in mysterious places just to give staff something to do with their day.

While cleaning and straightening projects is an immediately visible, easy to recognize version of this phenomenon, more difficult to observe is the office worker pretending to be busy.  Having an email program open may or may not be work related, and if one spends too much time on the computer, one may look suspicious.  After spending a reasonable amount of time in an office where I work alongside excellent timewasters, I think I’ve learned a few tricks.

  • Unnecessarily Flamboyant Typing – most of the people in offices are computer literate, and can type quickly.  However, writing up emails at lightning speed or quickly assimilating information doesn’t make you look as busy as typing loudly or adding a flourish with your hands to the end of that sentence to your manager you just wrote.  Typing speed seems to increase dramatically as one nears the end of what one is writing, and then the final keystroke gets hit with a loud “bang!”, and both hands lift off the keyboard in exactly the same motion with which an orchestra conductor uses a baton.  This move apparently increases the intensity of whatever is being typed, and thus also increases the apparent efficiency and usefulness of the person typing.
  • Useless Phone Calls – I have witnessed (or overheard, I suppose) phone calls that take longer to spit out the “thank you for your hard work” and “please excuse my rudeness” than it takes to get through the actual content of the conversation.  This is an intercompany thing – clients and individuals working together in different departments or different companies will pick up the phone to call each other about inane details of projects.  Rather than, say, create an organized list of questions/comments/concerns, phone calls are made to confirm, re-confirm, excuse, confirm emails, and more.  Again, constantly being on the phone is an excellent way to appear busy, especially when one’s boss constantly hears business speak spewing from your mouth.  The useless phone call does this perfectly.
  • “Update” Meetings – you are part of a team working on a project, and you work together on a regular basis.  You email one another daily, chat in person, and move forward on your project as a group.  However, inevitably, the ranking officer in your group will call a meeting to discuss the current status of the project.  Probability of whiteboard use is high.  The meeting will be held in a space where the immediate supervisor or boss can see or hear that you are having a meeting.  Someone will note everything that was written on the whiteboard during the meeting and send it to all team members.  Whoever called the meeting will request it also be sent to a supervisor or boss.  The group will set “goals” in the meeting that will be disregarded almost immediately, but all team members will note in company emails regarding the meeting that “the meeting was a great help,” they are “glad everyone is on the same page,” and “the project is moving in a positive direction”.  The next day in the office will be exactly the same as the days preceding the meeting.
  • Random Changes to Regular Work – if your office has any kind of protocol regarding email, hours reporting, report submissions, etc., it will be occasionally and seemingly for no reason changed.  This is both a) to see who is actually paying attending to orders that come from higher ups and b) to make people do something else that will take up time.  The changes are inane, and overall useless time wasters, but that’s the point.
  • Meetings and Seminars – out of office time (especially time alone) is excellent.  Allotting extra time for transportation to get to a meeting or scheduling a seminar on a work day both removes one from the office scenario and makes one seem to be doing something productive for the company for the entire duration of the time away from the office.

These are a few common ways to increase the strength of the illusion of busy-ness that Japanese working folk do so well.  Unsurprisingly enough, as soon as the boss steps out of the office, working folk become real people again – they make jokes, they chat, and they slack off (openly).  Their posture relaxes.  They share facebook photos and make convenience store runs for coffee.  I’ve heard some employees in stricter companies actually took up smoking as a way to take a break regularly.  After all, when you’re expected to spend 12 hours of your day at the office five or six days a week, you have to pace yourself and your productivity to make sure you always have something to do, and thus always appear busy.

Of course, I am leaving out the fact that stuff actually does get done.  Ultimately, there has to be something to show for all those hours in the office typing and talking.  Getting actual results is important, so while people may be good at appearing busy, they also typically make it a point to do their job at some point.  Surprisingly, it’s usually even in a very timely fashion.

The experiences I have had requesting/sharing important details with Japanese coworkers have usually been positive.  Rarely does a Japanese colleague “forget” or “overlook” something, or get horribly delayed in forwarding a simple email to me.  When I signed the contract for my new apartment recently, the agency informed me that the rent would be due by the 27th of every month.  I, having dropped an enormous sum of money to move into the place, was unable to pay the rent until the next week after the deadline.  I noted this one-time inconvenience and the date I would pay the rent by to the agent.  He nodded, said he would tell my building owner and actually remembered. I know because my phone didn’t ring off the hook the day after the rent’s deadline.

While much of working society in Japan does seem to be a lot of smoke and mirrors, there is a foundation of genuine service behind it.  I feel a degree of trust toward the Japanese that I do not feel toward Americans.  My luggage was left behind on a flight back to Narita last year, and the airline I used only had to record my address at the airport once I deplaned, assuring me they would deliver my luggage to my home the following afternoon.  And they did!

This standard of service exists in all industries – when the cable company says the cable guy will come between 3 and 5, he will be there between 3 and 5.  When you miss a package delivery at your home, and arrange to have it redelivered the next day early in the morning, it will be.  If you are promised  dessert along with your meal, it will not be forgotten.  Your coupon will be accepted without hesitation.  These little conveniences are things I’ve come to depend on here, and they’re things I miss when I go back to the states.

Though, for all the amazing services Japan provides (without tips!), there’s still something magical about a chatty, gossip-happy American barista explaning her woes to a random customer.  Ah, shop banter – that’s one service Japan will never quite be able to provide.

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3 Responses to Quick, look busy!

  1. kumo says:

    Oh, how I miss Japan… I have only been there twice, but I just love that country, the people, the traditions, etc…
    I have considered applying for a teaching job, but I’m not a native English speaker…
    Anyway, I just discovered your blog now, but will surely come back to read more of your adventures.

    oriba aka oliver

  2. Gee says:

    Hahaha this is so true. I work in northern canada for a tourist place for japanese people, and all my coworkers are japanese. they are always moving furiously from one unnecessary task to another, with a strained look of extreme effort and obligation. This is mostly to put the customers at ease, cos it makes them feel like everything is taken care of. That said, it is awfully pretentious and one of the japanese staff actually complained to the boss, seemingly because i was chatting and not making a huge ostentatious show out of doing nothing, when really maybe her attention would be better served doing her own job.

    That said, I love the nihongo people!

  3. Will says:

    Totally enjoyed reading your reflections on the ‘work ethic’ you’ve witnessed. There’s definitely a lot of nervous energy that seems to be involved in getting anything done. The fact that a person still notices this kind of phenomenon and even cares is the sign of a healthy mind.

    One of the few times I actually visited Tokyo, I happened to drop by the lobby of some trade-center-ish place where they were showing a SMART car. One of the clerks there had the theme music to Brazil playing, almost inaudibly, on his computer…great sense of humor.

    As for service, I’m almost convinced that if it were not for the service, no one in their right mind could stand living in Tokyo.

    “This standard of service exists in all industries…”

    Just for a ‘heads up’, you might interested in knowing that the service in the sticks ain’t what it is in the urban meccas…sometimes nowhere even close. Maybe it really has a lot to do with location, location, location.

    Again, thanks for a good read.


    Found your site via your post on Badboy’s blog.

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