Japan Today



Power harassment exposes dark side of 'kizuna'


There are so many ways to make people miserable. Masters of the art are Japanese office workers. “Power harassment” has become so prevalent in the workplace that the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in January produced a formal definition. Its wording breaks no new ground, but the official recognition does.

Japan, since March 11, has been famous abroad for "kizuna" – the interpersonal bonds that somehow held society together through one of the worst disasters in peacetime history. Shukan Asahi (Feb 24), reporting on power harassment, exposes the dark side of kizuna.

The essence of power harassment is torment that must be borne because it is inflicted by people with power over you. Usually, though not necessarily, the tormentor is an office superior who can potentially derail your career, even your livelihood. Or it can be colleagues conspiring to exclude you, or even subordinates in a position to withhold information or expertise. The nuances are inexhaustible.

A man whom Shukan Asahi identifies as A-san works for a pharmaceutical company. One night, very late, his boss phoned him: “Meet me at such-and-such a pub.” “Now?” “Now.” What could it possibly be? He got to the pub and was told, “I drank too much. Pay for me, will you?” The bill came to 70,000 yen. The point is, the company only covered 30,000 yen a month for business-related entertaining. Meekly – the man was his boss after all – A-san paid. The next day he claimed the money from the accounting department, and got it, but it meant that for two months his own entertaining was suspended.

B-san is a young woman working for a publishing company. Her boss took her along one night to help him entertain a client. The client was an elderly man who invited her to cheek-dance. No thanks, said B-san, trying not to wince. The client insisted; B-san persisted in refusing – until her boss gave her a shove from behind, propelling her onto the dance floor. The next day she filed a complaint at the office. It is at least some sort of progress that this was possible. Increasingly, Shukan Asahi finds, companies do recognize power harassment and have mechanisms in place to deal with it. In B-san’s case, however, the company took no action.

C-san’s story is one of exclusion – everybody would go out to lunch together, leaving her flat for no reason that she could fathom. She requested a transfer to another department. The transfer solved the problem – but in the new department there was another woman who was made to suffer in precisely the same way. It’s as though happiness is impossible without an unhappy witness to it.

Then there’s D-san. Ten years ago he put in, three months in advance, for a vacation, and he made arrangements to travel abroad. Immediately before he was due to leave, he was told, “You can’t go, there’s too much work.” It was too late to cancel, so he went anyway. He returned to find the entire office had turned against him. His boss bumps into his chair with a look that says, “What’re you gonna do about it?” There are dead flies in his coffee cup. Even his underlings disregard his instructions with impunity. This has been going on for 10 years without a letup.

Shukan Asahi gives no indication of how many cases nationwide these anecdotes represent, but the labor ministry’s heightened interest in the phenomenon proves the number can’t be trivial. What effect the ministry’s definition and attendant publicity will have remains to be seen. One encouraging sign: D-san has lately contacted a lawyer.

© Japan Today

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thiese actions are just pathetic. so happy i don`t do the corporate office thing here. i am pretty much my own boss but must say i have gotten the same kind of treatment from the danchi. no escaping bullying. power harassment is just grown-ups bullying. i am really rooting for D-san and hope he "wins."

3 ( +5 / -2 )

If I were D-san I would just show up each day, laugh at all the pathetic attempts at ostracizing and collect a paycheck.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

When do these people ever grow up? Its like JHS never ends here.

0 ( +7 / -7 )

sounds like versions of high school dynamics carried into the corperate world. and you have to ask why i never wanted to be an executroid.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Strange Japan! If Japan wants to stop bullying at the school level they will first need to stop the parents from participating in bullying acts at the corporate level.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Apart from childishness, I think the simple fact of working in an office can really mess people's heads up. It's an extremely unnatural environment for humans to work in and can have extremely negative effects on one's personality.

Obviously one terrible effect is that it makes you very petty. I used to work in an office environment and I knew it was time to get out when I found myself printing out my name on labels with the Tepra and sticking the labels on my stapler, calculator, etc...

I will never work in an office environment again... and if there are any JT-ers here working in an office I advise them to get out as soon as they find themselves putting their name on the stapler.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

We should also stress here that this kind of "work - bullying", (i don't know if there is any other direct term besides "power harassment"), is not only restricted in Japan. The main difference is that in most of the western countries if something like that occurred, the victim would go directly to the lawyer and the company might be in big trouble. Thus, there is the legal framework to protect the victim from power harassment (i am not sure about the legal framework in Japan though). Moreover, there is also the choice to leave the company and search for a job elsewhere. This choice is not very common in Japan though as people prefer to stay in the same company for their entire life.

Unfortunately, this "power harassment" thing has become something like a cultural norm in Japan. Usually, it has to do with how hierarchy works here. The boss tells you to do something - you do it but not as the boss was expecting to and therefore, he calls you an idiot and useless. If you tell him that you disagree with his idea and you found a better and more efficient way to do it....this is equivalent to mutiny and you must prepare for suffering. Yes, innovation is not encouraged for the underlings.

There is a great 2003 French film called "Fear and Trembling" about power harassment in the Japanese working environment. It's very funny and very close to how things are done here.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Nicky, it never ends here because they believe in kohai/sempai crap which is nothing BUT power hareessement with a nice label that makes them think it is okay to treat anyone younger than you like crap and to be treated like crap by anyone older than you. Japan needs to do away with this abuse. Period.

And sorry, what does kizuna have to do with any of the above?

3 ( +5 / -2 )

I hope I never hear the word 'kizuna' again. It has gone from a regularly used word (used well) to being the buzz-word of the day thanks to the 'new year's kanji'. Since then 'kizuna' has come to mean any and everything under the sun in terms of relations. If I step on the sidewalk, and years down the road someone else steps in the same spot "that's kizuna"!

So now we have 'the dark side of kizuna'... just leave the word alone and call what's happening what it is -- bullying. Better yet, recognize it for what it is and DO SOMETHING about it!

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Well said Smithy. Whenever I think of how kizuna is being abused to justify all kinds of abuses, I am reminded of that line from Kipling's poem "If": "If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken, Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools"

Knew a thing or two about human nature did Mr. Kipling!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I don't understand how is C's story power harassment. Her colleagues don't like her for some reasons, they are not obliged to share their private time with her. forcing them to do so in their private time IS power harassment. As the leader of a small research group, I can tell you that all these stories have also a back story. One of the reasons power harassment is so prevalent is that you can' basically fire an unproductive lazy subaltern, you can only scold him = power harassment. Another problem I encountered with the members of my group is that they expect me to be harsh with them, otherwise they don't feel I'm "boss enough". I was actually asked a few times to be harsher with them! and finally, you always have some guy who's coming late, all day checking the net, not bringing any results, and when you caution him (remember you can't fire him) he starts crying power harassment.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I don't understand how is C's story power harassment.

Ostracism. Classic bullying technique. Granted, without more information we can't judge if C "deserved" such behavior.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Triumvere, in the private time (lunch break, dinner, drinking), not going with somebody I don't like or don't feel comfortable with should not be PH. and I doubt all her colleagues don't go with her to lunch for no reason :)

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Timeout, well said about not being able to fire people. I think if companies could get rid of the dead weight, life would be easier for those who are productive. I find it frustrating to work with dolts and don't bother speaking to them - some could see that as harassment. Why waste the time and effort? C sounds like this could have been the problem but with not info, for all we know C was a hottie and seen as the enemy by jealous coworkers. Was C nice to the other worker who faced the same BS or did C join in?

Pecking order IS natural (a quick look at wildlife confirms this) but the issue here is, when the old get stubborn and nasty, they don't get snuffed out like they do in the wild. The young and stupid AND young and smart get treated like crap - which also wouldn't happen in the wild. The power structure here basically works as an incentive to get old with the same company. Take the crap and when you reach a magical age, you can dish it out. All the lower level and young staff complain about it but then turn around and do it when it is their term to be the boss. Why? Because they feel entitled to it and want payback. Such a sad way to conduct your lives when adults. Petty and pathetic. I am so glad I am not Japanese and have to live under these rules. Want respect? Earn it. Want a promotion? Earn it. Slack off? Lose your job. Sadly, not the way here. Sure is costing the economy a lot....

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Stop it. This is a perfectly acceptable. Form of office behavior. This is exaggerated too. As we all know, Japanese are too nice and friendly to do any of this. The kindness of the group and the concern that people he always show toward one another means this article is a big, fat lie, making it the only thing in Japan that is big and fat.

-7 ( +0 / -7 )

Most of the time it sounds like reverse selfishness. You tell someone that they are being selfish for taking care of themselves instead of doing what you want them to do. Its really sad. The last one sounds like "Glee" material or some other highschool drama.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

If you think this in unique to Japan spend some time in the US corporate world. Short of the forced dancing much of that happens here and some things far worse. People are without recourse for much of the bullying if it doesn't cross the line of sexual harassment or civil rights.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I simply wonder what the agenda is behind ridiculing a cultural concept that isn't correct 100% of the time. As the word 'kizuna' has been featured to describe the way people from all over Japan and all over the world to help after the Tohoku quake, and most references in the press are linked to the disaster, it's a little gauche to throw up examples of people acting badly and say 'Well, there's 'kizuna' for you!'

What is behind the obvious effort to denigrate familial affection and community bonds?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

And, bullying people isn't 'kizuna'.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

C-san suffers from the rediculous out of hours teamworking that is standard in Japan- in other countries it wouldn't matter because the teamworking (even if that part is nonsense) is done on company time.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I dunno, the incidents in this article seem to pale in comparison to some of the things I've heard from Japanese friends. Forged hanko, multiple cases of blatant sexual harrassment without termination (by the same person), people having things thrown at them - among others clearly illegal activities.

I sometimes tell the Japanese that they are lucky to be living in "Safety Country"; I know of very few Americans, at least, who will sit back and take abuse. At best, the oppressed will up and walk right out the door, at worst the bullies will find themselves in the middle of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" the next morning.

I'm not saying it's right, but ...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I once saw someonde driven to leave a team because they were leaving each day at 7pm, whilst all of her colleagues stayed later. Her boss told her 'You must have too little to do to leave so early, and then gave her 3x as many accounts to handle as all the other staff' eventually forcing her to quit as the workload became impossible.

A-san's case should be good for his career, I can't really feel bad for him losing his drinking budget for 2 months, perhaps he can work on his social life outside of the izakaya for that duration..

B-san's case is Sexual Harassment, not Power harassment.

C-san should have either asked them what their problem was, or found other friends. The same thing happened to a girl in my wife's class in high school. When my wife made friends with that girl because she felt sorry for her the others (i.e. the bullies) excluded them both.

I hope D-san gets justice..

1 ( +3 / -2 )

missplaced my quotes above :(

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Before I got here, I had already been exposed to many of the ways people try to isolate you or put pressure on you to do something to which you are opposed. Many people here just suffer in silence. I can't speak for anyone but myself. However, if my boss calls me anytime after working hours, he/she can bet on hearing an answering machine's recording of my voice and not the real thing. I am not an employee 24/7 like many Japanese seem to be. I remember how shocked the people in my admin department were when they realized that I screened all my calls after work during the week. You bet! On weekends, my phone is usually OFF. I'm not a woman so I can't really speak for B-san but she did the right thing afterwards. As for the person who was never invited to go out, she should have just ignored them and let them be. I have worked in close proximity with people who absolutely refused to speak to me. It wasn't a whole department as in her case but still, I made it a point to not let them ruin my experience and I also found ways to let them have a little of it back. After transferring, I would have made it a point to go back and genuinely befriend the new employee that they were now giving the same treatment. I would never tolerate what D-san went through, especially when people are putting flies in my cup. That crosses the line and it seems the boss is condoning it all. That would be my cue to stand up in front of everyone and start shouting or look for a new job and give them all the finger (in stereo) on my way out the door.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Take the phone off the hook.

Pack your own lunch.

Read Dale Carnegie .

Post your wonderful trip pictures on line, make copies of them, and put them on the walls in the toilets.

Always come back with a big tan, and no omit age for anyone! :-)

0 ( +4 / -4 )

ooooooh! don;t tell me there's a dark side to "kizuna" NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

1 ( +3 / -2 )


There is a great 2003 French film called "Fear and Trembling" about power harassment in the Japanese working environment. It's very funny and very close to how things are done here.

I laughed so hard when I saw it, because it reminded me of two Japanese girls I worked with in a japanese store in Paris. They were my sempai (they were sent from the branch in Japan), and they sure made me feel their little power every single day (even at our clerk level). The first one was a pure nightmare, she'd go from power crushing to irrational anger (when we were alone), to a very sweet and friendly attitude when the managers were in. The second one was devious, stealing my ideas to present them as her own (she then got a promotion when she returned to Japan), or blaming me for mistakes she was responsible for. In between, of course, there was that very sweet smile, right after a betrayal. A french co-worker had had a bad experience when she was sent to the branch in Japan for 3 weeks. Some girls would ignore her completely and never answer her "Good morning" the whole time she was there. My mom also had a really hard time working in japanese restaurants (the chef pulling her tank top down, ignoring the orders of the customers she dealt with, etc). I also heard countless stories from my japanese friends.... Harassment exists everywhere, but it is so strong in Japan. I'd think twice before applying to work in a japanese company.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Work for yourself....

1 ( +2 / -1 )

This article is absolutely no surprise, and in fact, I've frankly heard worse. The Japanese business system is full of bullying and general douchebaggery, because they insist on forcing employees to make the workplace their entire lives, above even their families and adhere to the stupid sempai/kouhai system (which in theory doesn't sound so bad until you realize it gives so much room for harassment, and often the new people are far more talented and better workers than the older people). Japan needs a radical change, this kind of harassment is not okay.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is another category on its own. Countless women are belittled and harassed because of their gender. Things are starting to change, but the progress is still very slow and Japan has a lot of ground to cover.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Like I have said a million times Japan is a damned cold place & I too have heard & even seen some of this BS that goes on, I wud rather be homeless living under a bridge than be a salaryman

That said it is pretty hard to let people go so companies knowingly allow a lot of this, makes for some pretty depressing environments. Surprised no one has mentioned infamous company transfers to try to get people to quit

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I want to hear E-san's tale too. And all the other letters of the alphabet. These instances are pretty weak examples - much more serious abuse is commonplace in Japanese companies as well as large Western companies operating here.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I LIVED that movie and watched it while I was in my bully hell. Quit soon after. Bullying is a huge issue at companies in Japan. Won't stop until they get rid of the kohai/sempai system.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

If you have not got the balls to stand up for yourself, then you are equally at fault...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

is this really just japan? are japanese so cruel to each other? is it part of their genetic makeup to harass? is this the society of the worst bullies in the universe, at all levels, from childhood throughout life till your dead and maybe beyond? i don't think this is the case.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Bullying is far from being a Japanese-only thing. For those who claim it's worse there, I can only wonder if you've really worked overseas or came fresh out of university. And if you are looking forward to going back home because you "remember" how better things were, think again. Stop kidding yourself.

I had more people listen to me in Japan than I do back home. Over here, I have go up 4 levels of management to get past the cronyism of managers playing dumb and looking out for each other. Jumping up and down in Japan (when necessary) was far more beneficial. All bets are off if you're working at an English academy but seriously, what do you expect?

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Have worked here, and in two other countries. Nothing compares to what I've seen in Japan with regards to kids bullying and office bullying. Indeed, it does exists everywhere but not to the level it does here.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The big problem is that nobody wants to be the last "kohai" group that doesn't get to be the sempai and get a bit of revenge. Sports teams are the same way. Rookies get hazed. Then, they get to haze the new crop of rookies in the future, as a bit of compensation. Who wants to be the bullied, but never the bully?

A lot of behavior here is very passive-aggressive. The throat clearing/coughing to show displeasure, slamming down books/cups, slamming doors, talking to one's self, all are weak and childish ways to vent frustration. As for managers, they break one cardinal rule in managing- when you praise, do it in public, but when you reprimand, do it in private. Again, it's a way for managers to exercise their power in a petty and juvenile way.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I think I see a new business opportunity in Japan.... for the people who are being ostracized by their co workers I offer them a bunch of New Cool Friends. We will go to your office... hot women and cool good looking guys and fawn over you like you are our leader. The rest of the people in the office will start to feel that they are being left out and will want to be your friend too.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Having been both a manager and office worker in both the US and Japan, I found this type of environment to be more or less the same. Probably worse in the US. If you don't pull your weight or stick up for yourself, you will have it coming.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

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