J-Dev Confidential 2

In this series of posts I examine, from the unique perspective of having experience and knowledge of both Western and Japanese development practices, where, in my humble opinion, Japanese game development is going wrong. Beware that these are merely generalised opinions and do not necessarily apply to all or any specific Japanese companies, some of which are, admittedly, slowly changing their approaches and attitudes.

Part 2 - Serfdom

A few decades back, when Japan was riding high in their economic boom and the world was looking at Japanese businesses and management to copy their techniques, there was such a thing called "job for life", where anybody entering into employment within a corporation was pretty much guaranteed to be able to earn a wage within that company in one form or another for the rest of his life. When Japan's economic bubble burst, this admirable situation obviously died with it. "Job for life" hasn't existed in Japan for a while now, yet the attitudes still linger, from both the employers' and employees' sides.

In Japan the average employee works for the good of the company and not so much his own benefit. This may not sound too bad, and honestly, it probably isn't. In the West, especially the UK, I have found people have a bit of a bloated sense of entitlement, which often leads to unhappiness, complaints and bitterness, lacking a strong sense of responsibility. Japan seems the opposite, where people have a strong sense of responsibility yet almost none of entitlement. Neither situation is ideal, but I personally think your average Japanese employee could do with a little self preservation.

There seems to be a blind adherence to do whatever one is asked to do, whether it fits the job description or not, not that I've ever actually seen a job description formalised in Japan. At smaller companies employees can be tasked with cleaning duties, emptying bins, hoovering or wiping down common area surfaces, above and beyond the usual working hours and tasks. A the end of projects everybody chips in with testing and debugging, no matter what group of development is lagging behind or whether or not an employee's skills are better used elsewhere on other projects. When companies move or rearrange desks, the latter happening all too frequently, it is the employees who have to lug around equipment and furniture or relay cables. When schedules are overstretched, as they often are, employees can be asked at a day's notice to come in on holidays or weekends, or stay late, regardless of their private situations or plans. Employees can be lent out to friendly companies for short periods. In short, as an employee you simply belong to a company and do whatever the company wants you to. All of this happens without complaint or questioning.

Now I'm not saying this attitude doesn't have its good sides. Staff turnover seems to, generally, be much lower than in the West, with employees staying at companies for long periods of times, rather than just a few projects. This helps bond teams and collegial familiarity and it helps companies plan their future better without having to worry so much about staffing levels from project to project. The attitude also seems refreshingly devoid of bitching, a favourite pastime in the UK, where everything and everybody about management always sucked and that had to be vocally expressed, even on the workfloor. It is actually quite nice to work in an atmosphere where people try their best in the face of bad odds and punishing schedules rather than complain like a prima-donna the moment something extra is asked of them.

It has gone too far though, and I don't really like to use the term "exploitation" but often it can seem that that is exactly what management does with its employees. Employees don't complain or move jobs so much, so it's pretty safe to ask them to do anything, at any time, at whatever cost. And they do. When a director drastically changes his mind on some design issue but doesn't change the schedule or budget, it's up to the team to catch up an make it happen; if or when it doesn't happen, it is obviously also the team's fault. When a product is miraculously shoved out the door and onto the shelves, the employee may get a few drinks at a cheap izakaya at the company's cost, but completion bonuses are reserved for management, All in all, the employee is a chunk of man-month to deploy as the company sees fit.

None of this is particularly unique to Japan, it just seems to be driven to extremes here. In an ideal world employees keep their sense of responsibility but learn to stand up for themselves a little. By making management take responsibility for their mistakes or decisions management can be streamlined and, well, educated better, which in turn leads to better working systems and attitudes. It's a difficult balance, of course, as too much of a sense of entitlement leaves everybody dissatisfied, yet too little leaves employees open to abuse. I don't have any solutions for this, which is a little useless, as it would require a huge cultural change over the entire Japanese mindset, which, frankly, seems unlikely.

What usually happens is that Japanese employees with a sense of individuality and a drive to excellence for themselves personally, rather than collectively, end up leaving the country and going somewhere where their skills are appreciated for what they are. Within our industry this usually means moving to the US or starting your own company - not a unique Japanese thing, actually. This leaves the employers falling back on the usual practice of hiring inexperienced and dirt-cheap graduates.

All this is changing, slightly, at a snail's pace. Job-hopping is slowly losing its stigma. The days that having more than a couple of companies on your cv being viewed as a bad sign of unemployability are coming to a close. With employees free to switch jobs easier, companies that offer the best package and working conditions will win out over those that rely on employees' sense of responsibility alone. This in turn will lead to a competition between companies to create the best working environment to lure the best employees. This, I think, is a healthy thing.

It might have been a bad idea to start this series of posts with this particular subject as management types will obviously not see this as a problem at all, but those that do are faced with Japan's cultural mindset, which is not something that can be changed so easily. Personally I have managed to keep my own interests protected while working at Japanese companies, calling my leads out when they made unreasonable demands, like asking me to come in on a bank holiday weekend when I had already planned a trip, or telling them I wasn't going to attend this late night meeting and they should reschedule it for tomorrow morning. It didn't make me very popular, but at least in one company it did help solidify the otherwise meaningless core-hour rules that were already in place; they started to only schedule meetings within those hours and not after. Of course, it's all a matter of give and take. Had I taken the purely Western approach of "look after nr. 1" I could never meet them halfway; I had to occasionally do my overtime and weekends, or stay at a late night meeting once in a while, even do some cleaning duties occasionally, always letting them know it was a special circumstance, something I did for the company but not something they can always rely on. This seemed to work well, as they had trouble thinking of me as arrogant and entitled, as I did sometimes give more than I was required to, yet at the same time letting them know it wasn't cricket. Colleagues who saw me "get away" with such behaviour were inclined to follow my example. One of the companies I worked for was actually going in the right direction with this, in some small part, I'd like to think, to my insistence that I wasn't going to stay at work late to help a programmer I worked with if he came in after lunch.

Soon, part 3, "work ethic".


  1. It's only the first installment but I'm really enjoying this series so far. It's so interesting to learn about how such a different culture works at the job level, and seems to coincide so closely with my own values (wishing that coworker's I've worked with in the past would stop BITCHING so much!) yet at the same time highlighting the dark side of it; management *actually* being Stalins. On the other hand bitching seems to beget unreasonable/stupid management and vice versa. So I think that Japan might have the edge when it comes to balance, but slipping slightly as the job market changes from that Job for Life thing. Maybe it's the management who has started looking at things more from a Western perspective and taking advantage of their power ...

    Then again, my opinion has nothing to back it up so this is all just conjecture.

    Thanks for the great articles! Keep them coming! :-)

  2. Whoops, I think I may become one of those "dirt-cheap graduates" since I am about to graduate and I am starting to look for a job by doing the job hunting process usually done by students in Japan.

    Personally though, I think entering a game company as a fresh graduate is a lot easier in Japan rather than in countries such as US, because just like you said, we don't have to be experienced, (although paid not so much).

    Without trying to make you unveil the name of the companies, I'd like to ask if the companies that you have worked for are large companies (can be called oote in Japanese), or they are mostly small-mid companies ? I've heard that the work in small-mid companies is similar to what you wrote in your blog, but not (that bad ?) in large companies.

  3. I've enjoyed reading your articles; a lot of the points you raise are quite valid. Have you considered having some of the things you've written translated into Japanese? While it might not necessarily spark some over-night change, perhaps (if enough people read it) it will get them to seriously think about the condition of things. Though thinking about it and actually taking the initiative for change are another story ...

  4. This will become an awesome series... So much insight into the Japanese workplace from a western perspective.

  5. The comment on "dirt cheap graduates" was spot on. Japanese companies simply do not appreciate their employees and see them as an expendable asset. "What's that? Our hotshot designer just quit? No problem! We'll just hire a kid to replace him!" It's no different than replacing office equipment for Japanese management.

    I do take some issue with the idea of simply refusing to work overtime or clean up, etc. I do get where you're coming from, and I'm not one to argue the "When in Rome" axiom into the ground, but I do think that some aspects of working here, misguided and draconian as they may be, simply are part of the price of entry. If you endeavor to work here, you simply must accept that you will have to occassionally do crap that you don't like.

  6. Hi,lildavey. Just interested on your comment there.

    "What's that? Our hotshot designer just quit?"

    Just curious, what would be the (common) response of US or European companies in such cases ?

  7. @lildavey: I hear you, but as you say, when things are draconian and misguided, why go ahead with it? Sure, there is a bit of give and take, but Japanese employees need to start thinking of themselves occasionally. Like, is it acceptable to, in busy times, have talented dev staff clean the office because management wants to save some money on cleaners? Personally, I think that goes too far and I've never had a problem saying so. You want a clean office, hire cleaning staff, I have work to do.
    Indeed "when in Rome" really is a bunk axiom. It would have me be casually racist and a philanderer too, if I were to follow it to the letter. :)

  8. You raise good points, you really do. I myself have strongly suggested that our godforsaken Xmas Eve meeting that was running late eventually end by 11:00 since my fiance was waiting with fried chicken and cake, but that's as far as I've ever really pushed it. And, sadly, I still get shit for that one incicent.

    I simply couldn't imagine myself outright refusing to do something that was asked of me when everyone else in the entire office was doing it. If 50 people get up and start moving their desks around, I'm not going to sit there and tell people that are older than me and who've been around a lot longer that I'm too good to help them out and they should hire some peon to do what is being asked of me. That would make me sound like a prima donna and instantly put me at the very top of dozens of shitlists, which is something I would very much like to avoid. Add to that the fact that we leave earlier than our native counterparts and likely make more money, and you have a recipe for 12 hours of stinkeye thrown our way each and every day.

    I mean, if I was asked to do something unethical, or if what I was being asked to do directly interfered with an established deadline or something, we might have a different story, but - unless I myself am in a position of management and get to make those decisions - it isn't really my place to raise my hand and point out that my boss is "doing it wrong". I mean, that's what smoke breaks and office friends are for, right? ;)

    I think part of me is trying to play devil's advocate here, and I readily admit that I've been here long enough to have been at least partially indoctrinated and have my will broken, but I would still hesitate to advocate out and out rebellion in the face of being asked to do something as simple as to help clean or to move a desk. Hell, when it comes to some of these group activities (spring cleaning, semi-annual "everyone move their desk one space over for no reason" events, etc.), I can see the benefit of having people pull together and feel like a team. Surely there are some intangible benefits for the entire group that might outweigh our own heightened sense of self-importance, no?

  9. One thing that irked the hell out of me while there is that Japanese (and of course I'm generalizing here) seemed oblivious that this "one for all and all for one" thing is provably false!

    When I brought up these topics a common response was effectively something like "we are more cooperative society where everyone pitches in" or however you put it, completely ignoring the fact that the owners / managers of the company are living like kings. They have multiple vacation houses, various expensive sports cars, mansions big enough to be small hotels, mistresses they take to $500 a person restaurants...

    It would be one thing if the owners / board / CEO was doing the hard work too and getting paid shit but he's not. That's where I see the exploitation. Sure in the west we have CEOs that get paid crazy amounts, but at least in the tech industry they generally share the wealth. Look at the number of millionares from Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo (back in the day) etc. There is nothing like that in Japan. So effectively a Japanese worker is not pitching in for the good of team. Looking at the big picture they are effectively servants to the owners of the companies.

  10. @lildavey: Absolutely. I mean, yeah, of course I mucked in with the more traditional pains (moving, etc.) and did others while grumbling (cleaning occasionally) but I have often said "no" flat out when asked to come in weekends, for no tangible reason but just because everyone was, while I already had plans. Late meetings too I'd make a point of telling them to reschedule for 9 a.m. the next day. They'd say "but nobody is in then yet!" and I'd give them a marked look, which usually did the trick.
    It's all give and take. I am not advocating outright rebellion, of course, but I do think Japanese colleagues need a little bit of pushing in the right direction occasionally.

    @gman: A-men.

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  12. I really, really enjoyed this. The humor works brilliantly, and the animation is much better than I had imagined. The way you have “blended” (hehe) it all together makes this look like a solid, whole product, as good as any Pixar short. Probably better. But then again: That’s my opinion.
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