Working for a Japanese Food Facility: Seen Through Round Eyes

cartoon veggie

I think this piece could be of use for a potential worker in a Japanese organization to get a glimpse into situations they might encounter.  I have been employed part-time at a well-known Japanese company in their Fukuoka Food Processing Facility for more than two years now.  I work from 11PM to 4:30AM.  Firstly, I applaud my employer for being one a few companies who has opened positions for foreigners.  In addition to myself, there are workers from the Philippines and Nepal also there.  I do not work with any of them.  I am the only foreign member of my section known as the Cut department.  I am often asked if I am subjected to racial discrimination and prejudice on the job.  Am I treated differently than other workers in training?  My answer is resounding, YES.  It is an ingrained part of my everyday working experience.  Does this make the company a racist organization?  Certainly not.  This place as a company and employer is excellent.  I am proud to be a very tiny part of this well-known organization.  I plan to continue working hard for them well into the future.

It is important to avoid approaching discrimination in the same way we see it North America.  Racism in our own terms is not so easily defined in Japan.  Japan is for Japanese.  Japanese believe strongly in their exclusivity.    I am not a member of their group and I likely never will be. This is not hate.  This is not blatant racism or even bigotry.  Japan does not fully recognize the norms that my people were raised and indoctrinated with.  As a collectivist society, the ownership of values belong to the group not the individual.   Ayn Rand once described collectivism and racism.

“Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.   It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or  political significance to a man’s genetic lineage – the notion that a man’s  intellectual and character traits are produced and transmitted by his  internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged,  not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a  collective of ancestors.”

This is true as I see it in the Japanese workplace today.  Thus, without ever being brought completely into the group, I will always be treated differently than others.  I will be treated as I have a much shallower grasp of understanding the goals and tasks of the group.

Let’s look at some examples in the life of Kevin on the job.  I am subjected to a variety of less than ideal situations on a daily basis.  On my first evening on the job, an older man in a soft voice kept beckoning me, addressing me as  Gaijin-san, Gaijin-san the word for foreigner or literally in written character form “outside person.”  I thought it was kind of strange and made me think, “What the hell did I sign myself up for?”  I was not angry about it at all then.  To one lady’s credit, she tapped him on the arm and gave him a light scolding for using that form of address.  He readily apologized.  Later, I was surprised to find him in the parking lot waiting for me.  He kept bowing and apologizing over and over.  I really felt bad for him, because I did not feel hurt at all by it.  He was very anxious to teach me a lot tricks of the trade with sincerity and just did not have global social skills to know any better.   Afterall, because it was my first couple of nights, I was too busy being overwhelmed by learning all my new tasks than to worry about improper forms of address or even bigotry.

As the months went on, it seemed that several of the other men would call me Ore-ri-, which is my last name as pronounced in Japan.  Like North America, it is exceedingly rude in Japan to ever call someone by their last name only.  Americans customarily use first names and Japanese customarily use last names when addressing others.  But neither culture’s etiquette rules condone last name without a suffix (san) in Japanese or prefix (Mr) in English.  In Japanese, this is known as yobitsute 呼び捨て or literally throwing away one’s name.  I would not mind if they called me my first name even if I was the only one addressed that way, but I do not like my last name used like that.  I do not feel it is hatred for foreigners, but merely ignorance.  I feel a small sense of victory every time I move closer to some sort of successful assimilation or acceptance.

Another small stumbling block with me is their approach to training.  Here the appropriate term is prejudice, as it is to pre-judge.  I have a very difficult time getting the proper instruction and practice to perform the tasks in the workplace with proficiency.  Although I can communicate at an adequate conversational level, the workplace specific vocabulary and names of machines are new terminology for me.  Instead of answering my direct question regarding my job, I am often given very vague unrelated feedback.  For example, I need to ask one time and one time only, “What is the name of this machine?”   This new vocabulary will become part of my daily speech from that day forward.  I need it and I need a direct answer.  Unfortunately, my co-workers being unfamiliar to working with non-Japanese cannot seem to grasp this.  Instead, they pre-judge or make assumptions on what I am able to understand and what I am not able to when they communicate with me.  I receive “advice” that about 75 percent of the time is totally unnecessary, yet receive far too little information to complete a very simple task.  I have had to do my best to self-train myself.  Non-native speakers in workplaces all over the world employ multiple strategies to learn their jobs when spoken or written language fails to convey the information needed.  I am not different.  I listen much harder.   I frequently look at my co-workers as they complete slightly different tasks.  I constantly look at the work environment and the production control boards.  I ask questions even though I know there is only a 50 percent chance I will get the simple answer I want.  Most of all, I am in deeper concentration than my co-workers.  If there was a written training manual in Japanese, I would request or download one from the net and painstakingly study it with my electronic dictionary on my day off.  There is none, so I do my best to survive with what information I can get daily.

What kind of advice do I hear that is a total waste of time 75 percent of the time?  On a daily basis I am being constantly subjected to advice that is more appropriate for a small child than a person in the workforce for more than 30 years.  I have to stop and ensure I am understanding instructions correctly.  Besides not being as good at Japanese, I am also slightly hearing impaired in my right ear.  I frequently stop the machine to listen to something that turns out to be stupid stuff.  Very exasperating.  One lady who I think looks like the most intelligent in the workplace does give me excellent advice and guidance.  I like to listen intently to what she says.  But she often suffixes her great advice with a comment like, “I doubt he understood what I said or I wonder if he got it.”  This is certainly condescending for a North American because we respect people who ask when they don’t understand and the burden is on the trainee to tell the person they got it or did not.

My co-workers and supervisors are very grateful to me that I remove 200 kilograms of vegetable peelings to the outside refuse cage area almost every night.  It’s nice they often thank me and they think I am just a super nice fellow for it.  Truth be known, initially as I was not getting much information to transition from task to task, I would find myself not knowing what to do next.  I noticed my co-workers really hated to do the garbage task, so I thought well at least I know what to do with this.  I have been the garbage man ever since.  I like it.  It is an essential part of keeping a work space organized and sanitary.   I do not have people commenting on it and telling me how to toss garbage.  I can lift 50 kg from a squat position and those clippings can be heavy, so I am happy to do it.  I can now have a smoother transition from task to task now.  I was trained pretty decently the first couple of months to do a variety of tasks and worked on getting better every day.  However, one year ago our  plant had many changes.  A new building, new cutting blades and a lot of new management.  When the procedures changed, all of a sudden there was a clear effort not to train me on anything new.  I was oblivious to it at first.  I had sometimes cut, sometimes operated the slicers, sometimes weighed and dried the vegetables.  With the new changes, I only cut.  There were 16 people in our Cut department.  The manager came down with 15 disposable ball pens attached to a nice neck string.  The even had a label on them with the name of the worker.  I did not get my little pen.  It was only then that I learned I no longer do any weighing or paperwork.  Assuming I had nothing to write, I needed no pen.  Well, Whoop Tee Doo!  Guess they never thought that I use a ballpoint when I sign out my knives or mark the excess vegetables I return to the cooler room.  A big duh, there.  I am pleased that I was part of saving them  some money there.  38 yen for the pen, and about 12 yen for the string holder.     It was after that I opened my eyes and saw that actual efforts were  made to keep me in a remedial station for my entire term with the company.  This is where I remain after 2 years.  I do not blame the management.  I am sure my peers have expressed the idea that most of the tasks would be too difficult.

So, after writing this, many would wonder why I speak so highly of this company.  The truth is, because I have chosen not to complain and go with the flow.  You have to pick when it most beneficial to raise issues and when it is better to wait.   Even if I brought up instances of being marginalized because of my perceived limitations of my race, they would not understand it the way most Westerners do.  I am not being hurt badly by this.  I have a lot of mettle.  I have been through many stormy working environments.  My mind is more in line with a Japanese than an American.  Afterall, I have earned more yen than dollars in my years in the work force.  I am more concerned that this behavior toward foreign people can hurt production potential.  Isn’t it strange that after more than two years, I probably have to ask someone who has only been there two months where something is or how to do something?  Why do my peers view me as being mentally retarded and someone who needs constant looking after?  Why would any production facility want a worker who really is only about 55 percent trained to come to work?   I do not think I am the one who is suffering the disadvantage.  It is this company.  In the future, this company and other companies will need to use foreign-born workers.  Young Japanese people do not want to work nights there.  The older people are too physically small to lift as much.  The people I work with sometimes need to think just for a few seconds why I got the job in the first place.  It was because I had relevant experience.  Experience that my peers are totally unaware of.  For example, I have a Japanese Food Hygiene Certificate 食品衛生 some experience in the USA as an assistant manager of a family restaurant.  Japanese food service as well.    I worked in a Japanese bakery.  Here is a link to some of the fun I had there. http://wp.me/p2eVlP-L   I also could probably grasp a few new tasks because I was smart enough to further my education a bit.   All these do not say I am smart, but it should indicate that if left alone for 5 minutes, I won’t piss on myself.  I’ll be Okay.  I can do it.     They need to get over my foreign birth, and just let me do a better job for them.

As I work part-time with those vegetables at night, what I learn about communication there is relevant to my daytime job.  After a few hours of sleep, I get up and I teach at Japanese companies specifically how to interact in international environments.  Heck, I did not even discover really how to communicate until I got out of my teaching cocoon.  My experience with  gives me a of ideas on how communication fails when people pre-judge the capabilities of their foreign co-workers.  What really happens is my co-workers response is formed often before I utter a word.  All that vocabulary and listening work is not enough.  Global divides in everyday communication still exist even with my Japanese ability.  I am not a speaker on their level, which is clear but I will attempt to get my JPLT First Grade when I muster up a bit more confidence.  Learning other languages is useful, but we cannot forget to make our first language more understandable for practical communication.   Japan needs to recognize and work to change the nation’s image as an exclusive society.  It is my hope that this way of thinking  will someday be passed down to their finest corporations, especially the one I work for.

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16 comments

  1. The fact that you have chosen not to complain and to just go with the flow is very Japanese. After all, the “nail that sticks up is the one hammered down.” I just had to mention that.

    I never worked in Japan but I did have a big falling out with who had been my closest native Japanese friend when I went to school there. The problem was she treated me like a small child, and in her eyes I likely acted like a misbehaving child… One of the last times we met up, we waited for a fireworks show to start and she found a spot and told me to sit there and stay there while she went and did who-knows-what. Of course, I got up and explored after she came back, telling her I’d “be right back”. This pushed her over the edge and I found out from a mutual friend that she was done with me.

    Your description reminded me of those times, and regrettably I ended up befriending more foreigners than Japanese folks because so many natives felt the need to babysit me (well, it seemed that way!).

    I enjoyed your post much, thanks and good luck with your work!

    1. They definately find me helpless. It wouldnt be so bad if I was young, but at 50! Hearing from a mutual friend is so Japanese isn’t it? I have to wonder what my supervisors have been told about me to make them only give me the simplest assignments after I was once trained on the others.

  2. Maybe these justifications and reasoning’s are necessary for you to get up and go to work everyday, whatever floats your boat and gets you going. But…

    “This is not blatant racism or even bigotry. ”

    …you need to re-read the definitions of those words. Trying to push it off to any other reasoning is your simple method for trying to cope with the situation. Good luck with that, sincerely.

    1. LOL, it floats my boat in more ways than one for now. At age 50, I am about 8 years younger than most and in the case of some of these country bumpkins, some I feel really do not not know any better. People in both my home culture and Japan can find themselves engaging in inappropriate workplace behavior simply because the atomosphere is there to let it happen. People get away with what they think they can. With the older workers, mainly men it nationalistic pride that God forbid, a foreigner can perform as well or better that upsets things. In their narrow world, they dont understand such a concept of racism.

  3. Wow, this was a great read eventhough I could only read only about 75% of it.
    Thanks! May I ask if u r a guy or a girl? Cause that DOES make a difference. ha. I think guys will treat foreign girls better, as compared to foreign guy.
    But, well, done. Keep going strong!

      1. Oh, my bad! I missed your name under the cover photo. Was a bit tired when I read it. So, you are a 50 y.o. american guy working at Watami’s FPF. Hm, may I ask why you didn’t go the route of many – teaching your native language? I know, u moght not have a philology major or teaching certificate, but nether do most of them. Anyway, I can respect that.

      2. Double-Bad on ya!! LOL. I have been engaged in teaching in Japan since 1989, minus the period from April 2007 to September 2008 escape to America and the one year doing the project management job in Nagasaki. I have OLeary Gaigo Systems which is over 20 years old which I founded. I teach quite a bit there(For nothing, profits arent where they should be), for other people that have classes that interest me. My son who is 30 is now the president of OLeary Gaigo but we all need to keep our other sources of income to keep things afloat. Looking back on my last 25 article, I noticed I never wrote about teaching 8 years part time at local universities, a couple one year stints at high schools etc. I did walk right into the slum of it all getting off the plane in 2008 again to disptatch ALT nonsense for the local schools. Had to suck it up and do that for 2 years until I got back on my feet. Watami is certainly no career, but it is convenient for me as I work from 11PM to 4:30AM. A time when definately no students need me. I figure 300,000 yen per family member is a decent salary from our English teaching efforts, so until the school starts bringing in 900,000 a month again outside part time work will always be part of our day. Hard to believe but our school used to gross almost 1.5 million yen a month in the roaring 90s. That is long gone but we are the third oldest school in of many in our city of 300,000 people. We have survivorship to lay claim to.

      3. I do vlog training on you tube under the name kebunsha and kebuntrainer. In addition to O’Leary Gaigo Systems, I have another business called Kebunsha Gogagku Kenkyusho.

  4. Good read. Keep up the hard work over there. I only spent a year in Japan and that kind of workplace xenophobia was infuriating. I admire your patience. In any case I think it’s a very valuable position for you and the people you work with. It’s important that Japanese people have more interaction with non-Japanese, especially in collaborative environments. Plus, it shows that you are gaining an invaluable perspective on an aspect of an economy that very few non-Japanese have access to. I understand you have management experience, and IMO nothing makes a better manager than working through these sort of difficult and unique team dynamics. Look forward to more posts.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Took a zig zaggin road to get there. I wouldn’t say I broke the bamboo ceiling yet, but I smacked my head hard enough to leave a good crack. I hope that my working experience will in the future give me some better sense of empathy should I ever be entrusted to a large team in the future. It takes a lot of patience to remember to react the way a Japanese does to bad situations, especially as an American. I want to just say to them, “I know! I know!” But, in Japan it’s “Ok. Thank you. I will.”

  5. It looks to me that this web site doesnt download in a Motorola Droid. Are other folks having the same issue? I like this blog and dont want to have to miss it when Im away from my computer.

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