Overtime Problem in Japan

It’s very difficult to summarize this problem briefly because it is so deep-rooted. Are you ready to gaze into abyss? The Japan government has started frequently using the word “Work Style Reform” since 2015 when a new girl working in the top advertising firm committed suicide due to overwork. Her average overtime hours were reported to exceed 100 hours a month, which is almost the same as that of mine when I worked in the Ministry of Finance. The painful sad news made many people including me think “That could be me.” Even now, about 300 deaths from overwork are reported annually.

Photo Credit: mizuaki wakahara

I believe this is a structural problem, stemming from the structure of employment systems in Japan. Although the structure is said to be breaking down, the basics of employment systems are still a set of recruiting of new graduates and lifetime employment. Companies assign jobs to generalists grown internally, instead of assigning specialists to required positions. The former companies adjust output by the amount of overtime; the latter companies by hire and layoff. Each employment style has both advantages and disadvantages. People may die due to overwork in the former system; due to unemployment in the latter system. Some of you may think penalties should be toughened. Actually, some bills already passed the Diet in 2019, but dishonest companies have concealed the information of overtime. Consequently, the toughen penalties have caused new poorer victims engaged in unpaid overtime.

There’s another factor making the darkness of the overtime problem deeper in Japan. We should keep away from psychopaths, but they are necessary for human evolvement. The ratio of psychopaths in island countries is less than 1%, much lower than that (around 4%) in continental countries. Do you know why that is? It’s difficult for deviants to survive in the closed society of island countries like Japan. People rejecting overtime are judged as deviants in Japan of today. CondeHouse? Yes, it has the problem of overtime, but the management regards it as a problem and is working on it. Unfortunately, such companies are inferior in market competition. I’m hoping for a system where people reject products made in overtime, like FAIRTRADE activities.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.

Photo Credit: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/18/business/japan-work-overtime-tv-show.html

How to Survive Meetings

You won’t read to the end of this article because the average human attention span is down to only eight seconds (one second shorter than that of goldfish). I remember I read many articles starting with this kind of sentence when the survey result was released some years ago. Today, it’s not about human attention span but about meetings that I hate. I don’t mean I hate unproductive meetings, but mean that meetings themselves are basically unproductive. As a hardship destined for workers in Japan, I’ve endured a lot of meetings. It is not only meetings themselves that distress us. We spend a lot of time to prepare meeting materials. What is even worse, a preparatory meeting is sometimes held for a meeting. Some may refute me by saying “it’s a matter of your way of meetings.” Yes, they may be right. We should limit meeting time to eight seconds for productivity.

Of course, holding a meeting within eight seconds is just an extreme argument, but time consciousness is important. The major purpose of a meeting is consensus-building which would not be realized without attendees’ attention. Once I thought only Japanese workers must be victimized at many meetings, but later learned the same tragedies were happening all over the world. It is Sarah Cooper who told me how to survive meetings. Her article “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings” is really encouraging by telling me “You are not alone,” though the question remains: why has this problem not been solved yet?

Wing Armchair (Left) Splinter Armchair (Right)

Unfortunately, CondeHouse, like many other companies, has a lot of meetings, too many from my point of view. Most of the meetings are set to 30 minutes, which I think is good, but they are likely to be longer. In such a prolonged meeting, her trick No.4: “Nod continuously while pretending to take notes” is recommended, by the way. Having said that, I think we’re still lucky because we’re a furniture manufacturer. All of our meeting rooms are equipped with our comfort tables and chairs. The same as the 10 tricks, they could help you at meetings. Why don’t you buy some for your meeting rooms? In that case, you will have to be careful not to fall asleep, though.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.

Photo Credit: https://www.redbull.com/us-en/theredbulletin/appear-smart-in-meetings-without-really-trying

How to Spend Money Right

It is common for me to lose (rare to make) thousands of dollars a day in the stock market. On the other hand, I sometimes give up buying cereal only because it doesn’t sell at a bargain price, though I eat it almost every morning. I once bought a suit at more than 2,000 USD but hardly ever wore it. This may be a natural result for a man like me who always wear UNIQLO (synonym for cheap clothes in Japan) from head to toe at home. It seems spending money is as difficult as making it. Today’s subject is “How to spend money right.” Let me share an interesting paper by Harvard psychologists.

“Money can’t buy happiness. This sentiment is lovely, popular, and almost certainly wrong.” One of the coauthors, Daniel Gilbert started the paper with such a sensational introduction, proposing the eight money principles to guide our spending. As some of you guessed it, I tried, as always, to draw a good conclusion to recommend the purchase of our products, but I found it difficult this time because the first one of the eight money principles is: “Buy experiences instead of things.” It seems I made a mistake in subject selection, but give me a chance.

Another one of the principles says “Buy many small pleasures instead of few big ones.” He raises an alert over our ability or curse to adapt, saying “Expensive new iPhone will inevitably reveal itself to be just a smartphone in a matter of weeks.” I should buy good cereal and even toppings instead of blowing money on the stock market (dreaming of making a fortune); wear a little better loungewear instead of paying a lot for clothes to wear once or twice in a lifetime.

Let me forcibly conclude today’s article, though I know it’s the slightly broader interpretation (or intentional misinterpretation) of the principle. The quality of life and cost performance get better by spending more money on things we use often and for a long time. In that sense, I can say buying furniture, especially our durable products, would be a right way of spending money.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.

Photo Credit: https://www.aarp.org/money/budgeting-saving/info-2018/spend-money-wisely.htm

Melancholy About 3D Printing Technology

We are headquartered in Hokkaido, the northern most area of Japan, which is still the kingdom of brown bears. When I was a kid, my father often took me to rivers deep in the mountains to fish, always exploding firecrackers to avoid bears. He told me “When you encounter a bear, don’t run, act dead.” It’s a kind of superstition widely believed here, but I have always doubted, saying to myself “How do we know that’s right? We can’t listen to people who failed.” Later on, I learned it was survivorship bias: the reason why autobiographical books of successful people are good for nothing in most cases. Survivors survive because they happen to survive.

As this may sound a little strange, removal building sites remind me of people who acted dead but were killed by bears, though I don’t know if such people actually existed or not. In order to enjoy commuting even if a little, I make it a rule to try to find something new, something that I hadn’t noticed until the day before. Although I always pay attention to the scenery on the commuting route like this, I forget removed buildings so quickly, sometimes can’t even remember what was there. To put it simply, they make me remember the harsh reality: the world exists for survivors.

There are many things disappearing with the times from the market: rotary dial phones, VHS video tapes, etc. In addition to ones in our memories, there should be something more that we can’t even remember. Since around 2015, we have often heard the news about the technological progress of 3D printers. Now that they can make most of the organs and also buildings, why not furniture? From the perspective of a general consumer, I was just excited by the news of the world’s largest 3D printed building in Dubai in 2019, for example. As a member of a furniture manufacturer, I can’t help but feel a little negative about the future outlook of our business, just hoping some of our products will at least remain in people’s memory.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.

Photo Credit: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/13/warning-four-killed-bear-attacks-akita-japan

A Leader With the Times

At the awarding ceremony of Entrepreneur of the Year Japan in 2018

Innate optimism is the most important quality required for a leader. This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned from the current (third) president. I joined this company just after the start of his administration (2013). For about seven years since then, we have traveled all over the world. As I sometimes wrote, most of the trips were grueling, such as moving one country to another via overnight flights in a row. Even on the way back home from such long tough trips (even ones ending up achieving no results), I’ve never seen him pessimistic or stuck in negative thinking.

The purpose of working becomes diversified. Once, people just worked for bread and butter. Now, someone may work for self-fulfillment; others may for social contribution. Accordingly, required leadership styles become diversified. I think the previous two presidents are similar in leadership style: top-down and slightly authoritarian. On the other hand, that of the current president is completely different: mentor-type and democratic. Although this is a little off topic, he has never shown his irritation even when being bothered with my candid questions time and again during the business trips mentioned above. This super anger management is another thing I want to learn from him.

By the way, I don’t mean the leadership style of the current president is superior. The leadership issue is more complex than simple good and bad. It is not the best leadership style that makes companies survive. The leadership style that makes companies survive is best. In that sense, those of the previous two presidents met the needs of the times. More interestingly, they chose on their mutual consent the current president who has totally opposite personalities.

Shop interior and display in 2010 (Left) The current shop interior and display (Right)

Don’t be fooled by the gentle smile of the current president. He is as passionate as the founder, as logical as the second president, and may be more aggressive for new things than the predecessors. Generally speaking, democratic decision making takes time, but many reforms have advanced quickly under his administration. A good example is a drastic reform in the method of shop interior and display. You can see how different they are in the above images. I believe his innate optimism and democratic leadership style would have evoked energy at workplace and pushed forward many reforms this quickly.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.

A Personification of Logical Thinking

The Matrix Reloaded, Blues Brothers 2000, Speed 2, etc. These movies prove it’s difficult to surpass the great originals. On the contrary, there’re some exceptions such as Terminator 2 and The Hustler 2. The second president of CondeHouse can be said to be one of such exceptions. I’m not flattering just because he is still at the desk near me as the chairman of the company. It is more like retrospective or hindsight. The company is still thriving (and I’m here) because he was a great successor. If I explain in short, from my personal perspective, he is a personification of logical thinking.

In 1984, still in his 30’s, he was transferred to the US to establish a branch office. The first thing he worked on was CI development. He brought together experts and prepared everything such as a brand name, a logo mark, shop interior planning, etc., without the approval of the founder, a man of hot blood (see last article). His behavior doesn’t sound so logical? Please remember it was about 40 year ago. I imagine very few people would have even heard of CI (such a systematic way of developing a new business) in Japan at that time. How logical and strong-nerved he was! He already showed something of a big man in the game.

Watanabe wants to show the world what Japanese furniture can bring to the table.

The above episode shows his great ability at the time of offense. What about at the time of defense? As the Art of War says, defense is much more difficult than offense. I personally think it is defense that showed his true value. When the Japanese economy seriously deteriorated after the 2008 Financial Crisis, everything without exception was logically judged. He didn’t hesitate to make a drastic cut in labor costs including his own salary. Consequently, CondeHouse survived the hard time while about 16000 companies went bankrupt in Japan in 2008.

I once asked “Even logical thinking can’t predict future correctly. How do you judge future issues?” He grinned and answered “If s/he comes to me for approval again even after being rejected three times, I will give a go even for application that my logical thinking says no to.” Even passion or human irrationality seems to be logically taken into consideration by him. After the feverish early days under the founder’s administration, the logical thinking of the second president made the company position on the growth path.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.

A Man of Frantic Passion

An autocracy may be required to make a business take off in the harsh market battles. Especially new comers in the market are always exposed to kill-or-be-killed situations. They don’t have time to make decisions after democratic consultation. The founder of CondeHouse was with an autocratic leadership style, which, I’m sure, made the company survive and thrive. I don’t think the leadership style was what he intended. He was a master craftsman and furniture designer of frantic passion, and the passion drove forward everything including himself autocratically. In the furniture industry in Japan, he is a legend. There are many anecdotes about him, but let me narrow down and share two of them.

I believe his biggest achievement is a revolution in the furniture distribution. Before the revolution, furniture wholesalers had substantial control over everything such as pricing, product planning, etc. He rebelled against the system and started selling directly to retailers, which soon caused a furor, of course. Some wholesalers put pressure on other companies to stop trading with CondeHouse. Even though being cornered into a financial crisis, he didn’t give up. Finally, the tide turned, and now, most of the furniture wholesalers withdrew from the market. He led off the restoration of sovereignty for furniture manufacturers.

Japanese Furniture Designed by the World.

As I wrote before, we Japanese people started using chairs just about 150 years ago. Even when he established the company, chairs were not so popular. The main product of the furniture market at that time was a Japanese classic-style chest of drawers. Here again, he was against the tide and decided to focus on the production of dining chairs and tables. His foresight determined the fate of the company and established a firm position in the Japanese market as a top brand of dining chairs.

Strong light creates thick shadow. I heard many people had left the company due to interpersonal conflicts with him, but it was his frantic passion that could lead the company higher. CondeHouse is a company of about 300 employees. If group companies and employee family members are included, the company can be said to be a system to support the lives of more than 1000 people in this small city with a population of 340000. From the perspective of a man who always dreams of being an entrepreneur, I can’t help but admire even his shadow.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.

We Need Stories

As I wrote before, the definition of “time” is not completely settled in physics and philosophy. To be more precise, the existence of time is often an obstacle to prove the laws of physics. Apparently, it is doubtful in physics. Recently, I read an article by a neuroscientist. It said we felt the existence of time because we memorize as stories all sorts of things that happen in our lives. The story memory technique itself has long been known. The most famous one would be the memory palace method, by the way. Although I couldn’t understand even a half of the article, unfortunately, it has reinforced one of my beliefs: we need stories to live.

I suppose the famous marketing research “Significant Objects” is an example to show an aspect related to this human nature. It’s an experiment devised by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn to prove the effect of stories. They bought more than 100 objects via eBay for about 1 USD apiece; sold them for nearly 8,000 USD in all by giving short stories purpose-written by professional writers. It seems no doubt that there’s a close relation between stories and impression/memory.

For example, at the last moment of our lives, everything is losing its value. Money, status, glory won’t be of no comfort to us anymore, but stories in our memory will. We need stories to live. This belief is the driving force that makes me continue to write stories in this blog. I strongly believe stories would be a help as well to make people to know about and remember our brand.

Previously, I wrote something about the president of the company. He seems to read it and have no complaints (at least) so far. Next time I’ll write the historical stories about the company through the profiles of the successive presidents from my personal view point. No worries. It’s not going to be a boring puff piece. If it should be, mourn over me, and make it a lesson to learn the harsh reality of life as an employee in Japan.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.

Photo Credit: https://edition.cnn.com/2013/05/18/health/lifeswork-loftus-memory-malleability/index.html