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