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JAPAN'S ECONOMY: PAIN AND PROFIT

Personal Computers, E-Mail Upset Old Office Hierarchy

Technology: As Japanese companies modernize, supervisors find themselves needing help from younger subordinates.

July 15, 1996|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — When personal computers and an electronic mail system were installed at his office in the spring, Nippon Life Insurance Co. executive Masaaki Shibamoto, 46, pestered his subordinates for help.

"I asked young people the same questions over and over, so they've been giving me the cold eye lately," he confessed. "But now, somehow I'm managing to use it every day."

As Japan furiously plays catch-up to other industrialized nations in the realm of personal computers and information networks, Shibamoto's experience is common.

Partly due to the nature of the Japanese language, this is a society in which most middle-aged managers got where they are without touching a keyboard. Until the development of new software just a few years ago, it was complicated to type Japanese, with its many Chinese ideographic characters. Offices functioned with handwritten notes, faxes and printed documents prepared by clerical staff.

But now things are changing fast--placing tremendous pressure on technologically inept older employees and overturning traditional relationships at work.

Most Japanese offices are structured in a rigid hierarchy based on seniority. Where computers are involved, however, age and long managerial experience mean nothing: Younger people, especially low-status female clerks, are better off.

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Because Japanese offices have been run so rigidly according to age, gender and formal rules, the belated emergence of e-mail may disrupt old patterns more severely than anything that happened during Americans' adjustment to the technology.

That Japan has entered a new era is reflected in the emergence of cram courses. Night schools are popping up so that terrified middle managers can learn to use personal computers; the instructors usually are young women, a neat irony given their traditional role in Japanese offices as clerks and tea servers.

"When a company puts in a personal computer for every employee, of course the department heads and even the president start getting direct e-mail," said Tomoko Kitaoka, who teaches an intense, $550-per-person two-day introductory computer course for upper-level executives called Special Training From Hell.

"Before, personal computers were just a tool for organizing data, but now they've become something like the telephone," Kitaoka said. And "when you get a telephone call from the company president, you can't say to a subordinate, 'Hey, talk to the president for me.' It's the same for e-mail. You've got to answer it yourself."

As managers struggle with computers, Kitaoka said, they turn to subordinates for help: " 'Hey, how do I do this? Ah, I see, thanks. Oh, can you come over again? What's the next step here? Yes, OK, thanks. . . .' Subordinates end up not getting any work done."

In the short run, the underlings are victims in this scenario; a popular new word has even been coined to describe their plight: pasohara, or "personal computer harassment." (The word parallels another shortened English phrase that recently has entered the Japanese lexicon: sekuhara, or "sexual harassment.")

But in the long run, it's the incompetent boss who suffers. "People try to avoid being near such a manager, " Kitaoka said. "The manager feels isolated, finds work hard to do and realizes he really must learn how to use the computer. He puts pressure on himself: 'My subordinates don't listen to me. My heart pounds when the president messages me. I wish I could quit.' "

This scene is playing out in many companies, frazzling nerves and upsetting traditions. "There are some people who say, 'We're handling everything on paper and the work gets done. Isn't it OK this way, without computers?' " said Hiroshi Maeda, 41, a manager at Zexel Intelligence Co., a manufacturer of sophisticated auto engine parts.

Takashi Abe, 24, a supervisor in the sales division of HUCOM Inc., a computer consulting company, says that "salarymen [white-collar workers] in their 40s and 50s are almost hopeless when it comes to computer technology." Even so, most of his customers now are older than 50--people with the power to buy computers and install e-mail networks, he said, adding, "Until recently, people of that age wouldn't come with questions.

"But now," he said, "those higher-ranking people are almost harassed by persistent suggestions from their subordinates that their companies should make more use of computers."

Iwao Matsuoka, 58, manager of the women's apparel division at the venerable Japanese clothing firm Stock & Zenock Co., attended Kitaoka's class to prepare to impose computers on his subordinates. "Young people are using these machines, so I have to learn how," said Matsuoka, adding that he is not at all frightened about learning to use computers and e-mail but that some of his colleagues are "very scared."

He said he will set a timetable for his 70 office workers to learn computers and start using e-mail; the company will train them.

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