Month: March 2012

Inside a Japanese Production Facilty From A New Guy’s Perspective

In October 2011, I took on a job at Watami Takushoku’s Fukuoka Processing Center.   Prior to that, I spent my many years in Japan as an English teacher.  After leaving teaching in 2010, I was in executive managment at a small start up company which employed foriegn staff on temporary projects according to event schedules.    For the first time ever, I am employed in a purely Japanese work environment and I am the only one of my breed here.   My former collegues reacted to my new choice of work in a variety of different ways.  Some were envious and hoped I had magical powers and could somehow get them connected up.  Some were  condescending that I would, God forbid, stoop to taking on an entry level position.    There were some former subordinates who did not care for my management style at my previous job and downright ridiculed my new position on public forums..

“Who goes from management to dicing onions in a factory?  This proves that there must be something seriously wrong with him.”

Most of the people who have a deep level of knowledge about the situation in Japan over the past decade were supportive.    No, there is nothing seriously wrong in my head.  My judgement is intact.  I have more that 30 years work experience a degree or two.   I know what I got under my belt.   It doesn’t mean I have to forget how to use my hands and it is a honest way to pay some bills.  Entering the Japanese workforce from the more traditional English teaching roles foreigners usually do is quite a big deal for me.    Let’s face it, teaching will always be available to me in Japan in one form or another.    It is not an easy thing to walk on the other side of the job market and requires proficiency in Japanese language skills.   It just makes sense to me to give it a shot at this point in my life.

At Watami’s Fukuoka Processing Center, food is processed and then loaded on trucks for over the road delivery across Japan.      I was all psyched up and a bit nervous going to my first day of work.   I walked in just before 11PM and gave the people I saw a hearty,  Konban wa(Good evening).   They smiled, looked a little uneasy and gave a soft konban wa in response.    Later in the evening, I learned although it was 10:45 in the evening, the traditional greeting there is Ohayo gozaimasu(Good morning).  Perhaps that is because I will work from 11PM to 4:30AM.  Nothing like botching my first on-the-job Japanese test.

I dress in all white from head to toe.  Nothing exposed except my twinkling eyes.   I look like a nuke plant worker or maybe a beekeeper or worse a klansman who lost his pointy head.   Excellent hygiene and keeping sanitary is a must to enter the work area.  We enter a room and run a lint-roller over our uniforms for 60 seconds, don a face mask, scrub our hands and take a spray of hand sanitizer.

I am assigned to the Cut Department.  Once inside, I put on a pair of disposable latex gloves and go over to a table and find my name on the shift work assignment.   Typically, there are three main stations to process each work station.  I will either be cutting, running produce through the slicer or washing, weighing and and stowing the finished product in the walk-in refrigerator.  Last week, I saw the biggest order ever which was 1500kg of cabbage.  That’s 3,300 pounds in my measuring system.  When finished and cleaned up, we will go to area that we are not assigned by name.  It might be peeling Japanese Daikon, cutting pumpkins or putting tiny food items into little baggies.  I hate the baggie job especially when the quantity per bag is so small like 2 grams.  It takes a long time and is the most boring thing I can think of.

The atmosphere in the place is okay for me. There isn’t time for chit-chat and I cannot hear what is said easily anyway.  At 48 years old, I am one of the young kids.  I work with a lot of retirees with time on their hands.  Sometimes, the old geezers get on my nerves because they seem to assume I do not understand anything coming from another culture.  I get advice overload.  They need to shut-up and not worry so much.  I got this.  They mean well and I always thank them.  I have an excellent working relationship and would even venture to say it is one of the best cooperative environments I have seen in many years.  I speak Japanese, but I do not really want to because many of my coworkers might assume I know no Japanese and become anxious trying to communicate a complex idea.  I have been interrupted more than a few times while I filling out my report and be asked if I can write hiragana.   I am not fluent and I also have anxiety about making a cultural mistake or selecting less than polite Japanese when speaking.  Additionally, I am so locked in to concentrating on the specific task, I don’t want to deal with more stress.  Consequently, I have taken a liking to dumping huge amounts of peelings in the dumpster outside because I can do a good job, do it alone and everybody is happy.

There is drama sometimes.  For instance, some knuckle-head swept a knife into the waste can and it wasn’t discovered until the next morning.  Now, we have to sign and out our tater peelers and knives all night.  Another time a screw came up missing on my slicer blade when I inspected it.  I had to shut everybody down.  At first, my coworkers weren’t grasping what I told them and kept working.  I had to be more assertive and say, “Did you hear me, Stop the machines now!”  We had to sift through bags of shredded cabbage until the screw was found.  My manager was pleased that I discovered the screw missing and took action.  I felt very unlucky because the thing had to wiggle loose on my watch.  I want to work silently and not be noticed.

I do feel happy because I am accepted as part of the team.  I do not detect any willful predjudice toward foreigners at Watami.  But of course I work with rural people that might not know how to react to foreigner in the workplace.   I salute Watami for being one of the few companies to give someone like me a chance to prove I can perform with reliablity and speed.