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Portraits of the Japanese workplace: labor movements, workers, and managers.

ed. Andrew Gordon, Translators Andrew Gordon and Mikiso Hane (Boulder, CO: Westview Press 1996).

NOT SO VERY LONG AGO popular interest in Japan largely concerned understanding how this relatively small, resource poor country had managed to build one of the worlds' great economies. Some focused on state market protection and cartelized price fixing. The more romantic gave importance to highly focused feudal warrior values harnessed in the service of national economic growth (a surprising 1980s bestseller was The Book of Five Rings, a treatise on samurai warrior theory and practice written by an obscure 17th century swordsman.) The most common area of discussion, however, considered what was seen to be Japan's distinctive system of labour relations. This "Japanese Employment System" included a variety of elements such as "permanent employment," seniority wages, weak company unions, and powerful corporate identity that bound all employees to each other and to the firm. Japan's protracted recession has stripped some of the lustre from this system while its practical essence is assumed to persist. This newly translated book by a prominent Japanese labour economist calls the reality of this system into question. His study is not the first in English to do so but it is the most well informed, sustained critique of the now mythological "Japanese Employment System."

The title of the book's final chapter, "Working Like Mad to Stay in Place" conveys the study's general tone. The real heart of Kumazawa's book, however, is the preceding chapter in which he looks at "Twenty Years of a Bank Worker's Life." On these pages the reader meets a middle level Fuji Bank employee, Kawabe Tomomi, who, at forty-seven years old, was killed in an automobile accident. For the previous twenty years Kawabe had kept a journal in which he charted his personal and professional life. He was, from a North American perspective, an extreme oddity. A committed, life long Marxist, Kawabe was also a hard working, conscientious bank employee. He organized workers study groups, regularly opposed the officers of his own union, and served as a careful mentor to new employees. Over time the company passed Kawabe over for promotions, pushed him aside in the workplace, and deprived him of symbolic forms of support and recognition. In many ways the antithesis of the docile, cooperative Japanese salary man, Kawabe's work career demonstrates that the idealized Japanese employment system and the structure of labour relations were harsher and more antagonistic than the model suggests. The first seven chapters seek to explain how and why.

Kumazawa argues that unlike British or American workers, those in Japan never developed a sense of working class membership. As a result, working life in Japan has been marked by isolation and insecurity as workers compete with one another for recognition and promotion within a seniority system. Thus, Japanese working life is, contrary to commonly held assumptions, characterized by intensely competitive individualism. Japan's companies, which base assessments of workers on merit and length of service, have, as a result, created a hierarchical system "saturated with a culture of free competition." (40) When one worker wins in this competitive struggle another loses and because this hierarchy is not separated into impermeable divisions, workers compete with each other from entry into the company until retirement. Thus, even in vaunted Japanese workplace innovations like QC circles, workers are subjected to mutual criticism and conflict in the name of team cooperation and collective goal setting. Uncompensated overtime and worker endorsed work speedups are inevitable consequences of the "mandatory volunteering" that is characteristic of such a system.

Kumazawa offers a powerful analysis of Japan's women workers. In addition to a separate chapter on women's working conditions (159-203) throughout the text women are placed within the context of the larger workplace. For example, in the chapter on Kawabe's career, Kumazawa discusses the persistent problems Fuji Bank women faced such as gendered promotion barriers and explicit pressure to quit at marriage. Most will not be surprised by the existence of systematic gender discrimination but the methodologies for its implementation are usefully documented and analyzed here.

The failure of Japanese workers to develop an awareness of class consciousness and a class-based union movement Kumazawa compares unfavourably to Anglo-American conditions. He suggests that Anglo-American workers did not improve their lot "by forming unions as a means to achieve individualistic goals." Instead organization was a product of an awareness that workers "could not survive by competing as individuals" in a capitalist society. (39) Many will find his analysis of Anglo-American worker values not a little naive. Nevertheless, setting Japan's workers behaviour and lack of organization off against this Western model allows Kumazawa to build a helpful framework for dispelling effectively notions of Japanese groupism and communitarian identity. Indeed, to Kumazawa it is the very individualistic and isolated character of Japanese worklife not the reverse that makes it distinctive.

For a tough minded but fair assessment of Japan's workers and worklife this study is the place to begin. For those both very familiar with labour and industry in Japan and for those who are not this is an important book. The editor and translator deserve our thanks for making it available.

W. Dean Kinzley

University of South Carolina
COPYRIGHT 1998 Canadian Committee on Labour History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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