The Death Of Civility

THE MAN SITS ALONE AT A SMALL WOODEN TABLE, nursing a coffee and reading a trashy tabloid. Nearby, others scan the sports pages or watch a made-for-television movie flickering on an old set. Lunch time in a Japanese corporate cafeteria? Try Wednesday afternoon at Nagoya's Hase Coffee House. The traditional hangout for cabbies and city bus drivers nowadays caters to a new clientele: Japan's underemployed. The man at the table won't reveal his name, only the gist of his dilemma. At 48, he's a midcareer administrator at a local vocational school where enrollment has fallen each year since 1991. To cut costs, management recently offered senior staffers early retirement--the first warning sign that he could be ""restructured,'' or laid off. ""Sometimes I think about doing something different,'' he says softly. ""But I don't know what that something is.''

Nor do most Japanese salarymen. Until recently, white-collar careers were made mostly by showing up at the office day after day, tending to repetitive duties earnestly and waiting for the pension to kick in. The comfort of lifetime employment was never universal, of course. But few in postwar Japan are prepared for the insecurity and downright humiliation that are beginning to infect the national workplace. After seven years of recession, Japan's jobless rate has risen to 4.3 percent, its highest level since the 1960s. Last year alone, some 530,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared and Japan's bloated construction sector shed 190,000 workers. And the payroll trimming has just started. According to a new study by the Asahi Mutual Life Insurance Co., Japan's jobless rate would soar to 10.7 percent overnight if companies eliminated all unnecessary positions.

That corporate culling process has just begun--and it will be uglier than any of the statistics. The process starts with an early-retirement scheme targeting the middle aged and meant to elicit ""voluntary'' departures. Redundant workers are told that the compensation being offered is more than they would receive if fired--a claim, say employee-rights activists, that usually isn't true. The next step is ostracism. On signals from above, colleagues cease joining the victims for lunch or inviting them for drinks after work. Targets find their telephone lines cut and desks moved to the basement. Those with any resistance left receive performance evaluations laden with fabricated malfeasance--a paper trail used, if all else fails, to terminate. ""Corporations have worked out a variety of nasty, dirty and despicable tactics,'' says Kiyotsugu Shitara, head of the Tokyo Managers' Union.

As management ratchets up pressure, employees have begun to speak out. When the labor group Network Union Tokyo hooked up a telephone hotline on corporate bullying for three days this month, 313 people phoned in to report abuse. One caller, a thirtysomething man hired by a construction company during the 1980s ""bubble economy,'' complained that his bosses had reprimanded him for marrying a colleague 10 years earlier, denied him new business cards and eventually fired him--all in a campaign to replace him with a younger, cheaper recruit. An executive for a major manufacturing company complained that he was called home from an overseas posting, given a tiny office and ordered not to leave it except for bathroom and lunch breaks. A personnel officer even gave him help-wanted ads. Perhaps he had been serving abroad too long, the executive said ruefully: he hadn't even realized that Japanese companies were firing their employees.

Restructuring is never easy. America's return to corporate efficiency in the 1980s killed rust-belt factory towns and shattered careers. The crumbling of the former Soviet Union is an even more uncomfortable model: an example of how systemic failure, not just the business cycle, can devastate an economy. The cracks in Japan's own working model are contributing mightily to its employment pressures. Japanese automakers produced fewer than 10 million vehicles last year, down about 40 percent from peak levels, but still employ nearly as large a work force as they did during the boom years. Japan's 15 largest banks, which must downsize to get government bailouts, could ultimately shed half their workers and close half their branches. Even governments must tighten their belts. Tokyo municipality alone had a $4 billion deficit in 1998, a debt level that portends cuts in municipal services and employment.

Job cuts are painful anywhere--but especially in Japan, where employers have long offered an almost familylike sense of security. Workers tossed out from these families can take it very hard. Japan's suicide rate is soaring. So is alcoholism, domestic violence and crime. Every labor activist knows a fired salaryman who still puts on his suit each morning and leaves home for the office. These corporate casualties kill time wandering in parks or daydreaming in coffee shops--unable to tell their spouses they've been ""restructured.'' Too often, the deception ends tragically when a salaryman disappears into the ranks of the homeless or jumps in front of the commuter train that once carried him to work.

In a period of sharply rising unemployment, even those who keep their jobs can't feel secure. ""Japan is entering an age of extreme competition,'' says Toru Ishikawa of the support group Ability Garden. In Nagoya, taxi driver Shoji Fukuda feels the pinch. Fares are harder than ever to come by and everyone suddenly envies his job. Nagoya is a Toyota town. With scores of the giant automaker's local suppliers on the skids, taxi companies have their pick of talent. They advertise potential earnings of $45,000 a year--a sum few mortal cabbies even approach. ""Soon the new drivers realize it's tough,'' says Fukuda, a 20-year veteran. Most are back in the coffee houses within six months.