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No Rules Japan – Changing times in an Asian powerhouse

by Robbie Dellow
no rules japan back streets

No Rules Japan is indeed alive and the outlier and rebellion movement is gaining popularity.

Having spent nearly a decade living and working in the amazing and bustling city of Tokyo, I have witnessed first hand the challenging of Japan’s unwritten rules and expectations. From the infant that curiously and innocently interacts with the funny looking gaijin (foreigner) on the train, before the school system sadly sucks all that inquisitive behaviour out, to the office worker curiously observing how foreigners do not obey the ‘company-first’ rules like their compatriots blindly adhere to.

A popular reality TV show, titled Hajimete no Otsukai (My First Errand), has aired on Japanese TV screens for over 30 years, and has just gained international attention under the Netflix title, Old Enough. The transcript centres on preschoolers running simple errands without adult supervision. This has recently been met with negative comment by some Western viewers who say that it promotes dangerous behaviour and a disregard for local laws. This is even though school children in Japan frequently walk, bike or catch a train home by themselves, unlike the over-protective behaviour Western parents have over of their offspring. But are the Japanese really so risk-adverse in everyday society?

The top choice for a workplace that a Japanese parents would want for their child is in the national civil service. Second choice would be the local civil service. Third choice is to land a job at the country’s largest company, Toyota Motor Corporation. To achieve any of these top 3 will virtually guarantee a life of stability and security. This is even though such jobs are very tough to gain, barely pay above the national wage average, and normally mean working 80+ hour weeks.

Comparing length of work service, Japanese employees do not change jobs very often, with only 8% having been in their current job for less than a year. This compares to the much more transient US workforce where 23% have been in their jobs less than a year. This reluctance for change is a big reasons for why Japanese salaries have been stuck in the doldrums for so long. It also  reflects long-established unwritten rules in a society where servitude to your company, and your country’s prosperity, is seen as more important than one’s own family.

Finally, there is the issue of Karoshi (or translated to Death by Overwork).

But the good news is that there is a groundswell of support for change. Government officials have started openly  complaining about the lack of business start-up’s, citing that the largest new group of listed companies happened way back after World War II finished. Since then, the risk-appetite to innovate has declined to such an extent that the boom periods of smartphones, internet and even more recently electric cars, has been overlooked by the staid local corporations to afraid to act. But the start-up industry is growing and the young are rebelling against society with their desires to embrace risk and start, or at least  join, a new fledging company.  This growing movement is backed up by hard statistics that show transience in the workplace has risen 5-fold since even 2013!  The young have spoken – No longer do many desire that job for life. They want off the hamster wheel, and are willing to forgo the security and drudgery that it brings.

In modern times, top career choices for young jobseekers can now be found with foreign owned companies. Such preferred options were unthinkable just a few years ago. Apple Corp, Alphabet (ne – Google) and Microsoft now pop up us preferred places to work, where previously car makers, airlines and govt dominated. Whilst hardly risky choices it still reflects a monumental shift in thinking to make one’s on life more rewarding, rater than the company-first attitude of the past.

And finally, some government Leave-Work-Early campaigns have recently been enacted, encouraging employers to reduce employees excessive working hours.

Japan’s unwritten rules within society are facing there biggest challenge since World War II and the younger generation are making their opinions be heard. Whether the staid and risk-adverse Japanese authorities, with their strict society values, will welcome this new wave of changing priorities, remains to be seen. This rebellion is a great example of No Rule Book at work whereby outliers start to question, and act against, the traditional way of thinking and doing.

no rules japan rockers image

Western influence is changing conservative Japan. (Rockabilly Rebels in central Tokyo)

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