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.
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".