Wednesday, September 21, 2011

the importance of being there: japanese work ethics

It's eight o'clock on a Wednesday night and I see on TV hundreds and thousands of people standing outside the ticket gates of a big train station in Tokyo waiting for the trains to start running. The big typhoon that has been attaching Japan for the past few days has just passed through Kanto and is moving toward Tohoku. The people on the TV screen all look tired, some terribly soaked carrying broken umbrellas. I wonder why these people came out when it was clearly warned on the morning news that the typhoon would be in full swing later in the day. I wonder why their companies let them come.

It reminds me of the days that followed the earthquake in March. The air was, reportedly, increasingly getting radioactive, and trains were running only sporadically due to shortage of electricity; yet, many just left home in the morning as if nothing had changed to get on commuting trains that were even more packed than usual from the unsteady schedule.

A friend questioned it on Facebook, expressing how terrified she was being in such a catastrophic situation: "Why don't companies tell their employees to stay home for a few days? Is work that important?"

Another answered: "I think it's important to carry on as usual because things are really crazy now."

I got his point. I was touched by all those workers who try to be in the office and carry on their regular tasks. It was simply noble and respectable. At the same time, I saw her point, too. I echoed her question in my head many times: Is work that important?

Work is important. If we all stopped working for good, society would not function. But then, to the questions Is work the most important thing in our lives? and Does only being at work mean working?, I say, with much determination, no.

While it is really admirable to continue working as usual to keep society functioning, that is not-should not be--the most important thing in our lives. Instead of stuffing ourselves into packed trains to get to the office knowing another long and exhausting journey is waiting at the end of the day, spending time with our family at home for a few days could benefit society by easing the people's fear and anxiety. Besides, not a few tasks we do in our offices are possible to be done by telecommuting in this technologically advanced era and country with emails, instant messengers and online file sharing.

So--again, was it really necessary to force our already stress-and-fear-ridden bodies to endure long and suffocating commutes when there was a possibility we might again get stuck somewhere unable to get home?

I don't know. Well, to be honest, I don't think so. I really think the government, prefectures, cities or companies better tell people it's okay to stay home--or, rather, they should stay home to avoid possibly unsafe, confusing and exhausting situations especially after an event as grave as the Great Earthquake.

Some companies did, but many didn't, because in the Japanese work ethics being there really matters. Whether it's a completely meaningless meeting or a shaking office building on a terrible typhoon day, being there at your own desk is the important thing. And that I believe is why many companies didn't let their employees go home early enough today, forcing them to stand there waiting for the train to move, soaked and terribly terribly tired.

I know it happens sometimes. Sometimes, we just can't help ending up soaked and terribly tired to do what we need to do. Sometimes it is necessary, and I see diligence as one of our culture's greatest values; and yet, watching the exhausted commuters helplessly looking up at the electronic display for any positive news for their long-awaited return home, I can't help but feel a bit frustrated with the strong belief in being there equaling working that is so rampant in our society, and it pushes me to consider leaving the country again just a little more seriously on this typhoon night.

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