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Japanese Firms Use Bullying to Thin Their Ranks

July 24, 1999|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Under extreme pressure to survive, Japanese companies are relying more and more on a perverse form of restructuring--bullying and isolating their workers--at a time when outright layoffs are still socially unacceptable, legally cumbersome and expensive.

While bullying has long been evident in Japanese schools and companies as a form of social control, workplace experts say its use has never been so widespread or so pointedly focused on getting large numbers of people to quit.

Some see it in the darkest of terms--a sign that Japan's once-vibrant and famously benevolent companies are turning much of their energy in destructive directions.

"The corporate situation in Japan is rapidly deteriorating," says Kiyotsugu Shitara, general secretary of the Tokyo Managers Union. "This bullying contrasts with past decades when that corporate energy was a great creative force."

For Akio Misuda, 51, it started when his former employer, a printing company, told him to sit by the window. What would amount to a perk in American terms spells exile for a Japanese worker suddenly pushed away from the group. Further pressure was then heaped on him to reinforce the hint that he should quit.

"They wouldn't give me any work," the chain-smoking Misuda says. "All my co-workers became cold. They wouldn't greet me. They refused to talk to me. I'd say hello to everyone, even though I was ignored."

Misuda's response was unusual. He refused to go quietly. Instead, he challenged the forced "retirement" by joining Shitara's union. The company backed down, he says, but then tried to demote him and, a few weeks later, redoubled its effort to fire him. After more showdowns, "we made a handsome settlement," Misuda says. The terms are confidential.

A more typical response, in a country where people have long been taught to avoid confrontation, is that of Hideki Miyagawa, 40, until recently a supervisor at a patent law office.

As the firm's business deteriorated, Miyagawa realized that he must be on a company hit list. Subordinates spread rumors that he was incompetent and was undermining group harmony, a mark of failure at Japanese companies. And they started ignoring his orders.

"I tried to tell workers what to do, but they wouldn't listen," Miyagawa says, speaking with great emotion even several months later. "If we had a [company] party, they'd all make a hidden agreement behind my back and all cancel together, even though some probably wanted to go."

Before long, he realized his mental health was at stake. Without another job in hand, he decided to quit. "I was so scared, I couldn't even walk," he said. "But eventually the natural instinct reemerged to keep on living."

Miyagawa's departure played into the company's hands by enabling it to reduce its payroll without expensive severance benefits--a pattern seen across Japan.

The indirect nature of such tactics and the typically obscure reasons that employees give for leaving make it impossible to quantify accurately how much isolation and bullying is taking place.

Individual companies involved in these cases, as well as the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations and other corporate groups, declined to comment on such practices.

"I would say this [bullying] is probably not going on in most companies I deal with," said Minoru Makihara, chairman of Mitsubishi Corp. "But at the middle and small enterprises--which support a lot of the Japanese economy--a lot of this may be happening."

Labor leaders, job counselors and psychiatrists add that abuses have spiked as the economy deteriorates. Unemployment is now at 4.6%, nearly unprecedented by Japanese standards, while gross national product declined 2.6% last fiscal year. In one measure, a Tokyo government job center recorded a 60% rise in bullying complaints between April and October 1998 compared with the year-earlier period.

While Misuda has entered job-retraining classes at the government's "Ability Garden" school and feels strong enough to talk about his experience, others are not so lucky.

"The people expelled [are often] left thinking it's their fault," said Rika Tanaka, psychiatrist and author of a book on bullying in the workplace. "Many people become extremely depressed. They can't even tell their family. The last stage is even suicide."

Suicides Hit a Peak in 1998

Indeed, the suicides of middle-aged men stood out in the latest government statistics showing that more Japanese than ever before--nearly 33,000--deliberately killed themselves last year.

Suicides were most prevalent among those in their 50s, who are typically targets of corporate restructuring. Suicides by the unemployed, the self-employed and corporate managers soared by 30% to 45%, the government said.

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