Bit­ter­sweet cam­paign to lib­er­ate Ja­panese of­fice work­ers from Valen­tine’s tyranny

Sunday Times - - Opinion - L EO LEWIS

From cam­paigns by prime min­is­ters and CEOs, to lob­by­ing from union heads and labour ac­tivists, the at­tempts to re­model Ja­panese of­fice cul­ture have been dis­tin­guished but dis­ap­point­ing. Hope now rests with a Bel­gian choco­latier.

Go­diva has cho­sen Valen­tine’s Day for a broad­side on try­ing to change work­place at­ti­tudes.

Specif­i­cally, the time-hon­oured phe­nom­e­non of the giri choco — lit­er­ally “obli­ga­tion choco­late”. Each Fe­bru­ary 14, women feel obliged to buy choco­lates and dis­trib­ute them evenly to their male co-work­ers (usu­ally with grit­ted teeth).

The men must then re­turn the “favour” a month later — the con­ven­tion is that the value of their choco­late of­fer­ings be around twice that of those they re­ceived.

The so­cial pul­leys en­gi­neer­ing this bit of stage­craft are as im­pres­sive as they are un­set­tling. There are two dis­tinct obli­ga­tions that com­pel the pur­chase of the giri choco and ratchet up its scale: a fear of non­align­ment with the un­writ­ten rules of the of­fice, and the need to ap­pear even-handed by buy­ing some­thing for ev­ery­one.

A friend de­scribes a panic af­ter she and her col­leagues made a solemn pact on Fe­bru­ary 13 that they would ap­pear empty-handed at work the fol­low­ing day, only to find them­selves har­ing off to the near­est con­fec­tioner when one of their num­ber broke ranks the next morn­ing.

Giri choco buy­ing is ba­nal, bur­den­some and sus­tained by a dread of non­con­for­mity — the very same recipe that has locked Ja­panese of­fice work in decades of pro­duc­tiv­ity tor­por.

It may be the per­fect mo­ment to shape pub­lic pol­icy.

Last week, in a neat stroke of mar­ket­ing, Go­diva’s Ja­pan head, Jerome Chouchan, took out a full-page ad­vert in the Nikkei news­pa­per (cho­sen for its au­di­ence of busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives), call­ing for an end to the men­tal im­pris­on­ment of the giri choco.

The ad­ver­tise­ment notes the sense of re­lief that de­scends across cor­po­rate Ja­pan in those blessed years when Valen­tine’s Day falls on a week­end.

Ab­so­lutely you should give choco­lates (hint: Go­diva) to some­one spe­cial, Chouchan ar­gues in the lengthy let­ter, but giri choco no longer has a place in this day and age. Valen­tine’s is not a day, he writes, on which you should feel forced to do “some­thing ex­tra for the sake of smooth re­la­tions at work”.

The let­ter con­cludes by ex­hort­ing male read­ers, “es­pe­cially if you are the top per­son in your com­pany”, to for­mally ab­solve fe­male staff of giri choco obli­ga­tions.

Go­diva does not quite spell it out, but the shadow cast by giri choco is part of a much larger dark­ness in Ja­pan’s of­fice cul­ture for which few good so­lu­tions have been de­vised.

Ja­panese white-col­lar work­places are hardly unique in al­low­ing peer pres­sure and con­ven­tion to reign, but the an­nual giri choco mis­ery of­fers an un­com­fort­able re­minder of just how po­tent they are as a force of re­sis­tance to change.

Giri choco is on a spec­trum of un­spo­ken obli­ga­tions which, at their most de­struc­tive, cre­ate the im­pulses that make the work­place bul­ly­ing of preg­nant women or new moth­ers — “ma­ter­nity ha­rass­ment” — a real thing, and leave the phe­nom­e­non of karoshi — “death by over­work” — seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble to dis­lodge.

Even good ideas — to re­duce, for ex­am­ple, the cul­ture of over­work — of­ten end up wrecked by work­place norms ge­net­i­cally pro­grammed to re­sist evo­lu­tion.

A year ago, Ja­pan’s Min­istry of Econ­omy, Trade and In­dus­try tried to es­tab­lish “pre­mium Fri­day” where, once a month, the week would fin­ish at 3pm.

Al­most as the scheme was an­nounced, com­pa­nies and en­tire sec­tors of the econ­omy formed a queue to ex­plain why they would have to be ex­empted.

But they needn’t have both­ered: the same suite of obli­ga­tions and fears that lies be­hind giri choco pre­vented a buy-in to pre­mium Fri­day. The trade min­istry, when asked, claims the scheme will du­ti­fully trudge on, but the very peo­ple it was in­tended to up­lift have al­ready de­clared it dead.

Go­diva’s stand, how­ever self-serv­ing as a piece of mar­ket­ing, is an im­por­tant one, as Valen­tine’s Day 2018 will show. Yet it is a safe bet that even if or­ders to aban­don giri choco are passed down, they will be ig­nored and Ja­pan will go on ob­serv­ing its bit­ter­sweet tra­di­tions.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.