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The rising tide of workplace harassment in Japan

To make matters worse, the generational shift in the workforce is creating new dynamics
Office workers in Tokyo's Marunouchi business area compete in a tug-of-war match aimed at promoting health and interaction between companies and workers on April 17, 2023.

Office workers in Tokyo's Marunouchi business area compete in a tug-of-war match aimed at promoting health and interaction between companies and workers on April 17, 2023. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 02, 2024 11:33 AM GMT
Updated: June 04, 2024 04:41 AM GMT

It might seem unrelated at first, but one unintended consequence of Japan's shrinking population is a rise in workplace harassment. The connection between the two will become clear upon closer examination.

A declining population leads to a smaller workforce, which creates pressure on existing employees to take on more responsibilities, often without adequate support or compensation.

This additional burden can create a high-stress environment where managers and supervisors, under pressure to meet targets with fewer resources, may resort to coercive or aggressive behavior.

The reduced workforce can also lead to hiring practices where the actual job position is not openly disclosed.

Let’s start with some data concerning the agency services that handle the process of quitting a job on behalf of employees. Some of these agencies have seen their clients double in the last month.

Most clients are new graduates who started working on April 1 of the current year. One reason so many people want to quit their first job is the discrepancies between the promised job duties or contracts and what they experience after joining.

This practice is widespread in modern Japan, where the lack of workers for less desirable positions is rapidly increasing.

The traditional Japanese workplace has long been defined by a rigid hierarchical structure, influenced by Confucian values of respect for authority and seniority.

However, this same structure has led to a troubling issue — widespread harassment by superiors.

As companies grapple with modern workforce expectations, employees often face pressure, verbal abuse, and power harassment from their direct superiors. These practices are deeply ingrained in some workplaces, leading to a toxic environment that discourages open communication and contributes to high employee turnover.

In traditional Japanese companies, respect for hierarchy often means employees are expected to obey without question and tolerate harsh treatment from their superiors. This has led to a culture where power harassment, known as "pawahara," is common and sometimes seen as a necessary part of corporate discipline.

Managers and senior employees exert undue pressure on subordinates, enforcing rigid work hours, demanding unpaid overtime, and using harsh language or aggressive behavior to maintain control. These practices, while longstanding, have begun to clash with modern expectations of workplace culture and a new generation of Japanese educated more on their rights as an employee than their duty in the workplace.

Employees subjected to these harsh conditions often feel trapped, with limited recourse to address grievances. Fear of retribution, loss of reputation, or even career-ending consequences prevents many from speaking out.

The rigid hierarchical structure makes it challenging to report any harassment, and companies often lack proper mechanisms for handling complaints or addressing toxic behavior. This culture of silence contributes to a high-stress level among employees, leading to increased absenteeism, mental health issues, and, ultimately, a workforce that feels undervalued and overworked.

To make matters worse, the generational shift in the workforce is creating new dynamics. Younger employees, especially those from the millennial and Gen Z cohorts, are less willing to tolerate such treatment.

This has led to a rise in the use of services that handle retirement procedures on behalf of employees. These services act as intermediaries, allowing workers to avoid confrontation with their employers when resigning.

The rapid growth of these services reflects a broader shift in employee expectations, indicating that younger generations are no longer willing to endure the harsh conditions tolerated by their predecessors.

The younger generations are also more susceptible to criticism and stress. Some may rightly argue that this susceptibility has led to a generation of workers who are more likely to give up when encountering difficulties. This suggests that modern education systems and societal changes have created a generation unaccustomed to real challenges, with an overreliance on support and a lack of resilience.

This generational fragility now undermines the traditional Japanese work ethic and raises concerns about the future workforce's ability to endure and adapt to work-related stress.

Finding the right balance between addressing workplace harassment and fostering a resilient workforce is challenging. It requires re-evaluating traditional hierarchical practices while promoting open communication channels for employees to raise concerns before quitting their jobs cold turkey.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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