Unneeded Workers In Japan Are Bored, And Very Well Paid

Window Sitters Pull Weeds And Clip Nails To Kill Time;

But Tradition Is Dying,Too

By Yumiko Ono Staff Rrporter of The Wall Street Journal

TOKYO - In his last 10 years with Mitusubishi Corp., Yasuhiko Ushiba got lots of experience- twiddling his thumbs.

Posted in a "planning promotion group." he was given no assignments by he giant trading company. When he tried proposing projects, the plans were thrown back in his face. So Mr. Ushiba hung out at the zoo and took in triple' features at adult movie theaters. All the while his pay checks- about $85,000 a year-kept sailing in.

The message from management was, you can stay here if you want to. but we're not going to give you any work to do."says .the 55 year-old Mr. Ushiba. who eventually quit to start a consulting company. "What could be worse for a person than being ignored?."

Mr. Ushiba had been shown the "window' seat," as the Japanese say ,of unneeded middle-aged workers who have been shunted aside. Sitting by the windows a form of welfare under Japan's lifetime-employment system. which often leaves senior employees on the payroll with little or nothing to do.With the average age of Japan's population rising ,and the economy still in the tank ,there is now more Window Sitting,than ever .Fuji Bank's research arm figures Japanese offices and factories are carrying the equivalent of one million redundant employees. Sign of the times: One secretary recently wrote to a magaine to. complain about an office coleague .who kills time by clipping his toenails.

Mind-Numbing Jobs

Traditionally.,companies dole out window seats as a way of supporting employees until they retire, typically at age 60. Getting branded a window sitter is a big loss of face. but a dead -end job beats the breathline. These days.,though.,more and more strapped businesses are mind -numbingly dull Jobs to humiliate aging workers into quitting. A lot of window sitters are therefore hard at work camouflaging their idleness.

"I'm the odd-job man." shrugs a fiftylsh Tokyo office worker as he boards a train. toting a bag full of prizes he bought for the office bowlig tournament. At a textile company. one window sitter in his 40s spends his days writing signs urging co-workers to shut doors properly.

Takeo Fukuda, a 54-year-old employee of a construction company, says each week he puts in a half day at a Tokyo public library to"analyze public information."

Sometimes he writes reports on "current trends," on the chance a colleague might find them useful. By 3 p.m. on a recent chilly afternoon, he knows the day's news-paper headlines by heart.

"You have to create work on your own.," Mr. Fukuda chirps during a 40-minute chat outside the library. In a burst of candor he admits he is a window sitter, but insists he is more industrious than others of his kind. "Look at all those people sleeping iu the library." he says, peering into the window. "What a waste of time.

Pretending to Pick Weeds

Most Japanese consider the window seat a sacred entitlement,a reward for years of loyalty, a haven during hardtimes. Eisaku Fukamachi, a 46-year-old employee of a big textile manufacturer,remembers the day his factory tempotarlly shut down during a recession 20 years ago. He justified his salary by picking weeds around plant; when finished,he would pretend to pick some more.

Sipping a beer over lunch, Mr. Fukamachl admits things are so slow these days that he spends many an afternoon drinking coffee with clients. But there will be work when the economy turns around. he says."that's what lifetime employment is all about."

Some window sitters let the inactivity get to them. Mr. Ushiba, the former Mitsubishl man, recalls one depressed colleague who had to brace himself for each day by belting back six cups of coffee - three hot,hree iced.

"You start going strange when you'refarmed out," says Mr.Ushiba as a testimony to his years in Mitsubishi's "confinement room," as he calls his old group of 10 window sitters, he built a gate outside his house with lattice work resembling a cage.These days, though. he is busy as a bee,barnstorming Japan to lecture before despairing corporate also-rans and plug his hot-selling book "The Challenge of the Bored Window Sitter."

Sitting by the window may be demeaning, but fading corporate soldiers don't see much alternative. Jpan's jobless benefits are peanuts. The country has no tradition of job-hopping, and recruiters prefer to hire fresh college graduates rather than- experienced salarymen. Companies are in a blind. too. because Japanese law makes it hard to sack people.

"We used to think that If you can't stick it out in one company ,you are no use in another," says Saburo Kitamura,a 56 yera-old emploee of Isuzu Motors Ltd.Mr.Kitamura admits he felt wreched as he slid down the corporate ladder and was assigend to head a department with no one working under him -a sign of a window seat. Secretaries whispered behind his back, asking what his job was. What come down five years ago when he commanded 40-member overseas parts devision.

Mr.Kitamura says he sucked in his gut and found himself a new mission: suggesting ways to change Isuzu's corporate culture. "Once you find your own niche, you justify your existence in the company," he says proudly. "I am after all a company man."

Those legions of loyal company men helped to make Japanese companies the competitors they are today.

Japan's young salarymen sacrificed their private lives and put in long hours for the company, because they knew the firm would take care of them later, even if they never rose to the top.

A Different Story

Today it is a different story. Providing all those window seats costs billions of dollars a year, and is something many companies can no longer afford. "The returns earned from loyalty are not what companies need anymore," says Iwao Nakatani, a professor of management at Hitotsubashi Univerlity in Tokyo. "They need people to create ideas."

Seeing the writing on the Wall, a number of companies are getting stingy, wth the sinecures. Susumu Ikegami, 54, says his mind went blank when his textile company told him to look for a job elsewhere. "I thought at least I'd get the window seat," he says "This meant I wasn't needed at all by the company." Mr.Ikegami. who was a senior manager at a computer-software unit, now works at an English-language school in Tokyo. Mr.Ikegami says his wife burst into tears when she heard he got the ax. "She said it would make a big difference at our daughter's wedding," he recalls. because he wouldn't be able to bill himself as an employee of a blue-chip company. Sitting by the window at a big company carries more prestige than having a real job at smaller outfit.

Ducking Stool

Some businesses are turning the window seat into a modern-day ducking stool in hopes the occupant will quit. One manager was recently ordered to write compositions detailing his "reflections on the day's events," reports Kenii Tokuzumi, a labor lawyer. . This winter,Mr.Tokuzumi says, a computer-software maker exiled three middle-aged employees to an office in the boondocks, another typical window job. Their assignment: chopping wood.

So may be it tsn't surprising that a small but growing number of Japanese say they have had it with lifetime employment.

Yasuhiro Itagaki, a 53-year-old engineer, has given notice that he will retire early from his electronics company - before he gets stuck by the window. He says he knows how grim things can get for senior workers.

"It's miserable clinging to a position when you've already been told there are too many people there." says Mr. Itagaki.What's the point of growing older and being called a win sitter?."