WaiWai: Salarymen slaves stiffed by ‘merit’ pay system

This article is reproduced from the discontinued, but much loved Mainichi Waiwai column by Ryann Connell (article below by Cheryl Chow). Read more about this at the bottom of this article.

Wanted, graduate of a prestigious university for full-time, unfulfilling grunt work at a major corporation. Hours from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., 100 hours or more overtime per month, work on weekends as needed. Annual salary: 3 million yen.

It’s not likely that employers will put out a want ad like this, but these are, in fact, the working conditions for most salaried workers on the lower rungs of the Japanese corporate ladder, according to Spa.

In December 2002, in the middle of a severe, deflationary recession Spa covered a story on overworked salarymen. Now, some two and a half years later, the Nikkei stock index has gone up, and major corporations are posting the biggest gains ever, but for the lowly salaryman on the wrong end of the totem pole, the much-vaunted economic recovery seems to be nothing more than a mirage. If anything, things are getting worse, not better.

To find out how workers are faring, Spa sent out questionnaires to 200 salarymen between the ages of 25 to 35. And sure enough, the survey discovered that today’s salarymen are a harried lot, suffering from near burn out. A whopping 81 percent replied that compared to three years ago, they experienced greater work-related fatigue, while 85 percent said that they were now more anxious about the future.

Working harder isn’t an antidote either — all that does is help them get nowhere faster, as they madly spin their wheels. Take, for instance, a 29-year-old salaryman at a large PC manufacturer that Spa! interviewed. After working for the company for five years, his take-home pay remains a paltry 170,000 yen. His salary’s gone up by a mere 7,000 yen, while overtime work has doubled. He makes 3.7 million yen a year, works 100 hours overtime a month, for which he gets a 30,000 yen allowance.

What’s more, as the junior member, the poor fellow is forced to study up on high-tech networking systems that his older colleagues are unable to comprehend — and which they expect him to teach them. And no, telling them to go stuff it isn’t an option in Japan’s hierarchical corporate culture.

And ever since his company adopted the so-called merit pay system, he’s been even more in the doldrums. “That’s in name only,” he complains. “They’ve doubled the expected work load, so it’s all but impossible to get more money.”

In fact, according to a Tokyo University professor, the introduction of the merit system to Japanese corporations is one big reason that salarymen at the lower rung fail to advance no matter how hard they work. Greasing your elbows or busting your behind won’t translate into fatter paychecks. Points out Professor Takahashi, “Under the merit pay system, no matter how hard you work, you might make twenty or thirty thousand yen more at best, hardly enough to make it worthwhile. Meanwhile, new categories of work will be added, which means the salaryman will end up putting in unpaid overtime hours.”

Slacking off, however, can get you into an employment wasteland. A 29-year-old who works in the information technology field compares system engineers like himself to a geisha competing for the best projects. They have to constantly pick up new “gei” — skills — or risk being left behind. Like hosts peddling their services, the engineers vye for the best projects by posting their photos and a list of their skills on the company Intranet.

For the working stiff in Japan, the competition only gets stiffer.


(The Mainichi Waiwai column ran online from April 19, 2001 – June 21, 2008. It was a much loved form of entertainment amongst foreigner in and outside of Japan. To any reader it was obviously not serious news, but it was a set of articles that portrayed quite well how the Japanese tabloids actually write about their own country. In 2008, a small number of Japanese people bought it to the attention of rival news groups that Mainichi was running an anti-Japan column on its website. With the bad publicity, Mainichi was forced to shut the page down, and take punitive measures against the journalists that were working on it, claiming that it was receiving opinions that were critical of the column, such as “its contents are too vulgar” and “the stories could cause Japanese people to be misunderstood abroad”. A perfect example of how Japanese consider what they write in their own script to be an acceptable secret code, that the rest of the world cant understand. When that same tabloid rubbish gets inconveniently translated to English to make light of some aspects of the Japanese people, it gets canned. Stippy.com finds this unacceptable, and will reproduce as much of the Waiwai content as possible in order to bring it once again to our computer screens for a good laugh. Of course we claim no credit for this content, and attribute it to it’s writers who were former Mainichi employees. Waiwai in its true and glorious form has been discontinued, but it’s legacy will live on at stippy.com for all to enjoy.)

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