Years ago, after a brief period as a contract worker, I was unemployed for a few months here in Japan. The experience taught me the true value of having a job in Japan, and I learned – the hard way – why working is Japan’s real national religion.
To start with, obviously, I’m no natural-born, workaholic Japanese salaryman. In fact, when I was a lad in the U.S., I had a knack for avoiding work. My Dad always griped that I was a master at it, a real natural.
So it was that at the start I had a false, dreamy American idea of what my jobless months in Japan would be like.
I imagined it’d be terrifying, but in a heroic kind of way. I saw the fear inspiring great bursts of energy that’d carry me to some un-imagined career path.
Instead, unemployment in Japan was merely dull and humbling, its subtle little humiliations pounding me into a funk that I was lucky to escape.
I’d start the days by opening my eyes a little before 6:00am, and then lie there for half an hour, too inert to face the silence of my email inbox.
(As a foreigner in Japan, your batting average for getting a response for a job application is exponentially lower than that of a Japanese: your foreign experience being far too exotic, your Japanese never fluent enough. However, when you do hear something back you’re closing rate is probably higher.)
One particular day early on, I got up before everyone else in the house so I could pound the cyber pavement in peace. I had a hop in my step that day, until I stopped to read a note from my wife on the kitchen counter. Its banality instantly punctured my bread-winning vibe: “Take the trash out. Don’t waste bags and tie-it up right this time!”
Later that morning, as I loafed on the sofa – the picture of unshaved joblessness – my son whispered something to my baby girl that rattled me further:
Little domestic tweaks like these show how Japanese society’s obsession with mottainai (“waste not, want not”) puts the squeeze on the jobless man in Japan, driving him out of the house and into an office, where he belongs.
I jumped up, shaved and dressed myself. Then I took our garbage and empty cans out, hoping to avoid my neighbors. Nothing sticks out in a Japanese neighborhood mid-morning on a weekday more than an out-of-work salaryman, especially a foreign one.
And nothing gives away a change in your job status like the beer cans you put in your street’s recycling bin (side note: beer-drinking statistics are even an official economic indicator in Japan and are often cited in newscasts).
In Japan, there are three beer categories, the best and most expensive one occupied by the famous Asahi, Sapporo, Suntory and Kirin brands. In my jobless state, there could be no drink guilt-free drinking from this beloved tier. I had to indulge in the second class category – the lower-malt, lower-cost happoshu (“carbonated alcohol beverage”) – a fall that spoke volumes to anyone watching.
To my annoyance, my retired salaryman neighbor shuffled out with his cans at the same time as me. He glanced at my cans and commented, “Happoshu ka. Saikin taihen dane!” (“Ahh, happoshu is it? Things are tough these days aren’t they!”).
He must have known this was a touchy subject for an idle salaryman, as he didn’t get into the very real possibility of me free-falling down into the bottom beer tier: the ominously named daisan (literally, “The Third” category).
I went back inside, humbled by this reminder that there’s only one acceptable state of healthy adult male existence in Japan: Asahi-laced servitude to a big company.
This mantra drove me to my monthly pilgrimages to Hello Work, Japan’s English-named national unemployment insurance service (yes, they even try to turn the shame of unemployment into a cute thing in Japan). At the Hello Work office, you had to follow their purely ceremonial requirement of “applying” for their listed job openings in order to qualify for your welfare payout.
I entered the Hello Work building later that day – one of those harshly lit Japanese government offices – and sat down in a room with rows of wooden benches and several numbered counters. Dozens of other unemployed people were there – mostly Japanese men in their 50s, with a handful of older women as well.
We were all there to search through their job databases and list up the jobs we wanted to “apply” to (rumor had it that government-friendly companies provided the listings just to serve the purpose of this ceremonial job search requirement).
Then you’d have to wait there for them to decide how many of your selected jobs you were qualified to apply to. After this, a clerk – a grumpy middle-aged man with sweaty armpits and matted-down hair growing low on his forehead – would bark out your name. He’d yell, “Mr. such and such, 20 jobs. Please come forward.”
Sometimes it was only 10 or 15 jobs, but whatever it was, the whole room knew it.
After a while my name was called, its unnatural foreign sound – like a record needle scratching on vinyl – instantly drawing the whole room’s attention. Busy people in the room abruptly stopped their work, their eyes honing in on me as the clerk called out my name and job search results: “Su-re-son-san: zero jobs.”
People couldn’t help laughing, but thankfully I’d learned from previous visits to sit in the front row so I didn’t have to see their faces. I quickly walked up, took my welfare slip and walked out head-down, muttering to myself.
Later, on the way home, I spotted a very successful friend in the distance walking toward me. I quickly dove into a pricey café to avoid him, and, of course, then had to buy something.
You could multiple all the above disasters by a hundred, it’s all part of the experience of being an unemployed foreigner in Japan.
Fittingly, this dreadful period came to an end in the most random, uninspired way possible. I stumbled across a job accidentally when I emailed a former colleague about returning a book he’d borrowed from me. He replied that his company had a job opening fit for a foreigner, so why don’t I come in and talk about it?
And boom!…that’s how I ended my time as a jobless man in Japan and gloriously returned to Asahi-sipping salarymanhood.