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"ill-tempered workplaces" in the Japanese Society:
How to Survive the Liquidized Era

Motoki Watabe
Associate Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study, Waseda University

Observing Japanese social change through "ill-tempered workplaces"

In January 2008, I published a book entitled ill-tempered workplaces from Kodansha Shinsho with my friends who are business consultants. We are pleased to have sold more than 250,000 copies and received many responses. In this book, we defined "ill-temperedness" as employees' inability to cooperate with each other and analyzed it from a viewpoint of social exchange theory, which is my primary research interest. In general, the company organization is based on a system where employees pay a cost in the form of labor to earn a profit that is later distributed among them. The profit is generated through employees' mutual cooperation to facilitate work within the whole organization by assisting colleagues who have difficulty or by taking on some tasks for other departments when they are too busy. Recently, however, workplaces incapable of mutual cooperation have been rapidly increasing, and more and more employees are exhausted, lonely, and sometimes suffering from mental illness amid the hectic environment. In other words, Japanese corporate organizations have changed into workplaces where employees are unwilling to cooperate with each other.

The book ill-tempered workplaces analyzes such workplaces in detail and indicates countermeasures with examples. In this article, I will discuss the social change that resulted in ill-tempered workplaces, which we could not adequately cover in the book.

"Liquidity" is the key

According to our research, ill-tempered workplaces started increasing in the 1990s, when the economic bubble burst and businesses began introducing the performance-based system. In the 2000s, the pace of the increase accelerated. Myriad aspects of Japanese society changed during this period. In order to comprehensively represent this change, I propose the keyword "relationship liquidization," which means that people are more likely to switch their social networks and the organizations that they belong to. In the age of lifelong employment, once employees were recruited, they would usually stay at the same company until they retired. Today, by contrast, the majority of new graduates looking for jobs do not seem intent to work for the same company for their entire careers. Along with many opportunities to change workplaces or jobs comes a liquidity of relationships among friends and acquaintances. As evidenced by the propagation of Internet auction sites and the rising divorce rate, relationships have in turn become liquid in various parts of society today. This is a significant departure from society before the economic bubble, which was based on relatively fixed and stable relationships.

The highly liquid society and the collapse of cooperation

The progression of relationship liquidization generally shortens the duration of human and organizational relationships. According to game theory, short-lived relationships boost the gains from "free riding," or deceptive behavior seeking short-term benefit. In fact, the media report free riding incidents almost every day, such as trouble involving Internet auction or dating sites, and bank transfer scams. Although strictly speaking they cannot be regarded as free riding, increases in the number of part-time employees and mass lay-offs of temporary staff also reflect the negative side of relationship liquidization. Liquidization has also had an impact in the workplace and in daily life in ways that are not typically covered in newspapers or on television. The ill-tempered workplace epitomizes this situation-with more and more "free-riding employees" who are unwilling to cooperate.

Advantages of the highly liquidized society

Relationship liquidization does have positive aspects, however, such as the potential increase in opportunities to form better relationships (greater opportunity cost, in economic terms). That is, it dramatically increases opportunities to find a suitable thing or place, or to build a proper relationship. For example, many people have used Internet auctions to purchase goods which they otherwise could not have obtained. It is important to recognize, however, that the positive and negative aspects of the highly liquidized society are two sides of the same coin. In order to acquire something rare which you really want via Internet auction, you must accept the risk that you take of being deceived by the seller when you bid for the desired item.

Japan needs a "change of heart and of institutions"

I am studying how to take advantage of the positive side and to control the negative side of such a society, from the social psychological point of view, primarily through experiments. Findings in this field so far have revealed that Japanese people do not appear to have the mentality to take advantage of the benefits of a highly liquidized society and that Japanese social institutions have not matured enough to do so.

There are two things which are vital to exploit the opportunities to build better relationships as mentioned above: (1) a mentality that is not averse to jumping into new relationships, and (2) institutions for avoiding free riding after diving into a new relationship.
Studies on the former found that trust in others, especially in those whom one does not know well, plays an important role in building a new relationship. According to a study, Japanese people are not trustful of others and not active in forming new relationships as compared with Americans and Chinese. This implies that Japanese have not sufficiently cultivated the mentality to take advantage of the benefits of a highly liquidized society.

How can such a mentality be cultivated? I believe that the crucial point is to create a reciprocal process between institutions and mentality so that institutions foster the development of this mentality, which in turn further strengthens the institutions. To this end, we need to start with changing institutions.

Fortify trust-supporting institutions

Even when one is aware of the importance of trusting others, putting faith in others blindly would greatly increase the risk of being duped. That is why the institutions mentioned in (2) above are important. Institutions and/or legislation must be established to prevent the honest from being regarded as prey. I personally think that the first step to it is to ensure transparency and accountability in various decision making processes. Those who are contemplating free riding almost always attempt to hide their behavior. This behavior must be uncovered and corrected under fair procedures-procedures which also need to be open to the public.

From this perspective, the sorting out of governmental projects, recently introduced and conducted by the Democratic administration, seemed particularly significant. Though the method of examination and the conclusions are still under debate, I admire their effort to secure transparency by broadcasting the process on the Internet. I hope that through the progression of information disclosure such as this, social norms recognizing that an honest and cooperative life is rewarding will permeate Japanese society, which in turn will become a highly trustworthy and trusting society that makes full use of the benefits of social liquidization. I intend to make a significant contribution toward that end through my own studies.

Motoki Watabe / Associate Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study, Waseda University

Professor Watabe graduated with an undergraduate degree from the Department of Literature at Hokkaido University. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the graduate program in the Department of Sociology at UCLA. He has been at his current position since 2007 after serving as an adjunct at Hokkaido University, as a research assistant at UCLA, and as an assistant professor at Kyoto University. Professor Watabe specializes in social psychology and experimental economics, analyzing issues related to organizations or groups from psychological and economic viewpoints through experiments and computer simulation. His publications include ill-tempered workplaces [Fukigen na Shokuba] (Kodansha Shinsho, 2008, co-authored); From Institutions to Governance [Seido kara Gabanansu e] (University of Tokyo Press, 2006, co-authored); Affective Science [Kanjo Kagaku] (Kyoto University Press, 2007, co-authored); Introduction to the Methodology of Political Economy [Nyumon Seiji-Keizaigaku Hohoron] (Toyo Keizai, 2008, co-authored), etc.