During my English-teaching-in-Japan days, adverse weather could mean a morning, afternoon, or if lucky, a full day off work. Eventually you’d get a feel for Japan’s weather ‘events’ and their corresponding value in terms of time off ‘school’. You’d secretly pray for the typhoon that’s on the way to arrive just before work starts or somewhere approaching the end of the day. This could mean a lie in or an early finish. When the news forecasted snow for the next day you'd hope to hell that some rain didn’t come along and p#ss on the party, so to speak. Heavy enough snow could mean a full day off school. Of course some spoilsports would insist you do lesson planning at home instead (he fails to suppress a laugh).
Corporate Japan doesn’t give a toss about the weather, though. Echoing shades of Gordon Gekko and his derogatory thoughts about people who eat lunch, it could be said that, ‘Time off work due to adverse weather is for wimps!’. So this doesn’t carry the same venom but the sentiment is shared by far too many of Japan’s economic grunts.
A classic case in point occurred earlier this year when the nation’s capital woke up to snow. Not nice, pretty white stuff that you could frolic in. No, this was that spiteful, icy, slushy mess that bore the appearance of having mated with the contents of an ashtray, and wasted zero time in soaking through shoes.
I didn’t need to switch on the TV to know that trains would be delayed, and I had a fair idea that my local station would be on its way to resembling certain sections of the Greek/Macedonian border. OK, a crass exaggeration but you always know these things are serious when rather than queueing for trains on the platform, people are queueing just to get into the station building.
Back home, faced with a scene like this most people with an ounce of sense or savvy would loose off a quick, ‘F#@k this!’, before turning around and heading for home. Actually, that’s a lie. They wouldn’t have got that far. Word would have been passed around in plenty of time (via local radio, text messages, phones calls from harassed managers), and everyone would be in front of the TV, cup of something hot in hand, basking in that warm glow that comes with an unexpected day off work.
In Japan people join the back of the queue, and follow the person in front of them until they eventually end up at the office, 3 hours late, soaked, knackered, a prime candidate for influenza, and in about as productive a mood as a middle-aged man, post coitus.
It’s one of the more stupid mysteries of salaryman Japan, but it’s also admirable to a certain extent. Getting to work in these conditions is a physical test, and most Japanese pass it. Trains may be packed to the point of being dangerous, tempers fray at congested ticket gates, and with each door, entrance, and barrier you pass through, you have absolutely no idea when you might pop out at the other end. In all seriousness, these days are a nightmare for claustrophobics and those who suffer more acute anxiety.
More fool the locals, I want to say, but I follow suit, too (literally). I may dither, moan, and sulk for a few minutes but ultimately I join the back of the queue, probably out of guilt rather than admiration, or a desire to serve the company. I just know that I wouldn’t enjoy my ‘day off’ in such circumstances.
For more on being a salaryman in Japan …