December 4, 2021

With Layoffs Illegal, Japanese Workers Are Sent to Boredom Room

For more than two years, he has come to a small room, taken a seat and then passed the time reading newspapers, browsing the Web and poring over engineering textbooks from his college days. He files a report on his activities at the end of each day.

Sony, Mr. Tani’s employer of 32 years, consigned him to this room because they can’t get rid of him. Sony had eliminated his position at the Sony Sendai Technology Center, which in better times produced magnetic tapes for videos and cassettes. But Mr. Tani, 51, refused to take an early retirement offer from Sony in late 2010 — his prerogative under Japanese labor law.

So there he sits in what is called the “chasing-out room.” He spends his days there, with about 40 other holdouts.

“I won’t leave,” Mr. Tani said. “Companies aren’t supposed to act this way. It’s inhumane.”

The standoff between workers and management at the Sendai factory underscores an intensifying battle over hiring and firing practices in Japan, where lifetime employment has long been the norm and where large-scale layoffs remain a social taboo, at least at Japan’s largest corporations.

Sony wants to change that, and so does Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. As Japan’s economic recovery sputters, reducing the restraints on companies has become even more important to Mr. Abe’s economic plans. He wants to loosen rigid rules on job terminations for full-time staff.

Economists say bringing flexibility to the labor market in Japan would help struggling companies streamline bloated work forces to better compete in the global economy. Fewer restrictions on layoffs could make it easier for Sony to leave loss-ridden traditional businesses and concentrate resources on more innovative, promising ones.

“I have a single wish for Japan’s electronics sector, and that’s labor reform,” said Atul Goyal, a technology analyst at Jefferies Company.

Sony said it was not doing anything wrong in placing employees in what it calls Career Design Rooms. Employees are given counseling to find new jobs in the Sony group, or at another company, it said. Sony also said that it offered workers early retirement packages that are generous by American standards: in 2010, it promised severance payments equivalent to as much as 54 months of pay. But the real point of the rooms is to make employees feel forgotten and worthless — and eventually so bored and shamed that they just quit.

Labor practices in Japan contrast sharply with those in the United States, where companies are quick to lay off workers when demand slows or a product becomes obsolete. It is cruel to the worker, but it usually gives the overall economy agility. Some economists attribute the lack of a dynamic economy in Western Europe to labor laws similar to Japan’s that restrict layoffs.

New York had “rubber rooms” where it put teachers who would sit — with full pay — while the city tried to fire them. The practice was ended in 2010. The United Auto Workers and automakers had created, under union contracts, places where idled workers were essentially warehoused.

Sony, a sprawling company with more than 146,000 employees, is under pressure. It has been outmaneuvered by more nimble competitors and its executives are trying to remake the company. Fixing Sony is especially critical after it snubbed the American activist investor Daniel S. Loeb’s push to spin off part of Sony’s entertainment business. Its shares have fallen almost 10 percent since Sony rejected his proposal last week.

Critics of labor changes say something more important is at stake. They warn that making it easier to cut jobs would destroy Japan’s social fabric for the sake of corporate profits, causing mass unemployment and worsening income disparities. For a country that has long prided itself on stability and relatively equitable incomes, such a change would be unacceptable.

“That’s not the kind of country Japan should aim to be,” said Takaaki Matsuda, who leads the Sendai chapter of Sony’s union.

Joshua Hunt contributed research from Tokyo.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/17/business/global/layoffs-illegal-japan-workers-are-sent-to-the-boredom-room.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Quick Action Helps Google Win Friends in Japan

It is one of the newest ways that Google, a Web giant worldwide but long a mere runner-up in Japan’s online market, has harnessed its technology to raise its brand and social networking identity in this country.

Google was also quick in the early hours of the disaster to assemble a Person Finder site that helped people learn of the status of friends and relatives affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

Analysts say it is too soon to tell whether Google’s efforts have translated into a larger share of search or online advertising since the quake. But in a country with the world’s second-largest online advertising market, after the United States, and where in the past the company has made serious blunders and raised privacy concerns in trying to unseat the local leader, Yahoo Japan, Google is finally winning new friends.

“I know we’d have nothing to worry about with these people,” said Shigeru Sugawara, the mayor of this northeastern city, which was ravaged by the tsunami.

“I’d like them to record Kesennuma’s streets now,” Mr. Sugawara said. “Then I’d like them to come back, when the city is like new again, and show the world the new Kesennuma.”

Another convert is Sachiko Kobayashi. She lives in Sendai, a city at the heart of the tsunami zone, and was in Kesennuma looking for a friend, a fellow student in the koto, a traditional Japanese instrument. After Ms. Kobayashi posted a query on a separate Web site, a stranger directed her to Person Finder. There, she learned that her friend was alive.

“Thank you!” Ms. Kobayashi posted. “Now I can look forward to practicing together again.”

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck off Japan’s northeast coast on March 11 was immediately evident to Japanese Google employees, who were jolted in their 26th floor Tokyo office. Engineers suspended their usual projects, and within minutes, a small group started work on what would become the first of various disaster-related services that Google has initiated in Japan.

Person Finder was originally developed after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In Japan, Google went live with its online Person Finder service less than two hours after the quake.

“Everyone started coming by with their laptops and ideas of what we could do,” said Brad Ellis, an American member of the Tokyo team that worked on the initial response.

One engineer raised the idea of making Person Finder compatible with conventional Japanese cellphones. Another suggested visual representations of train suspensions and delays, as well as data on traffic and damage to roads, on Google Maps. All these ideas were put into practice.

On Person Finder, users with information about a missing person can create an entry that other users can search. Conversely, people looking for a missing person can also create an entry in the hope that someone who has information will see it and post an update.

It is difficult to gauge just how many people found information about loved ones on Person Finder. One obvious drawback: without access to the Internet from the hundreds of evacuation centers, victims had no way to input their whereabouts on the Web site.

Much of the information on missing people was instead taking the form of handwritten posters at evacuation centers. So Google began asking users to take photos of the posters and upload them on Google’s Picasa online photo sharing service. The company put its sales team of about 100 to work transcribing names from the photos onto Person Finder.

Soon, almost 1,000 photos of names had been uploaded onto Picasa, and Google employees could not keep up. Then, in a development Google had not expected, anonymous users voluntarily started to transcribe the names on the photos, using Picasa’s interactive feature. In the weeks after the tsunami, more than 10,000 photos were transcribed by some 5,000 anonymous volunteers, adding more than 140,000 entries to Person Finder.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/11/technology/quick-action-helps-google-win-friends-in-japan.html?partner=rss&emc=rss