For this project I have worked with the photographic images of the people 'on the job' encountered on the streets of Tokyo during my stay there. These images have been digitally manipulated and printed as to induce a 'comic strip' feeling. Quotes from the superheroes and villains from the best-known comics have been used to create purely imaginary conversations and scenarios.
The images are back lighted and presented as an installation of 5 objects, making use of the esthetics of light boxes, as a further reference to the popular culture.
While being in Tokyo I was both surprised and inquisitive about some of the extreme manifestations in the Japanese society, which is known to posses an intensive labor oriented tradition. Just ridding the subway at certain hours, outsiders would be surprised to find whole carriages of people asleep or just having a doze in between stations. This experience has a surreal feeling attached to it - the quietness and somehow mechanical stillness of the people ridding the tube, or walking through the tunnels at lines change, is breathtaking. Early morning or just after work hours, the center lines are some of the most crowded places in the city, still, only the thousands of footsteps can be heard, as the Japanese are keeping a rigorous discipline on the congested but perfectly functional passageways.
Many both in and outside of Japan share an image of the Japanese work environment that is based on a lifetime-employment model used by large companies as well as a reputation of long work-hours and unusually strong devotion to one's company. This environment is said to reflect economic conditions beginning in the 1920s, when major corporations competing in the international marketplace began to accrue the same prestige that had traditionally been ascribed to the daimyo-retainer relationship of feudal Japan or government service in the Meiji Restoration. At the very top, the most prestigious companies would recruit and retain the best workers by offering better benefits and truly lifetime job security.
By the 1960s, employment at a large prestigious company had become the goal of children of the new middle class, the pursuit of which required mobilization of family resources and great individual perseverance in order to achieve success in the fiercely competitive education system.
This system rewards behavior demonstrating identification with the team effort, indicated by singing the company song, not taking all of one's vacation days, and sharing credit for accomplishments with the work group. Pride in one's work is expressed through competition with other parallel sections in the company and between one's company and other companies in similar lines of business. Thus, individuals are motivated to maintain harmony and participate in group activities, not only on the job but also in after-hours socializing.
Japan's rise from the devastation of World War II to economic prominence in the post-war decades has been regarded as the trigger for what has been called a new epidemic. It was recognized that employees cannot work for twelve or more hours a day, six or seven days a week, year after year, without suffering physically as well as mentally.
Meanwhile, death-by-overwork phenomenon has been on the rise in Japan despite the government's efforts to keep control over it. This is a trend that goes outside the boarders of Japan, the only difference being that the Japanese government recognizes death by overworking as a work related accident. Multinational companies around the world have made official announcements that measures will be taken to monitor the health condition of the population.
The Japanese companies have been known to inculcate in workers their role as associates of the firm, sharing the same goals as management rather than having their own distinct interests as members of a different, working class. Companies have organized many formal, informal and/or secret activities to spread the ideology that management and workers share the same fate.
Much of the change from recent years has been a result of Government directive, after other nations contended that Japan was competing unfairly by virtually enslaving its population to fuel its export machine.
To counter such criticism, the government started a program to make Japan a "life style superpower" as well as an economic one, by coaxing and sometimes practically forcing people to take it easy.
Companies, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes out of self-interest, went along, at times even paying their workers extra to take vacations and turning off the lights to get people to go home.
Experts and everyday workers alike say there has been a gradual shift away from the mentality of sacrificing one's personal life for the company.
One factor is that employees are seeing that the lifetime employment system, which provided security in exchange for loyalty, has been weakened by the prolonged slump.
Many companies have introduced flexible working hours and merit pay systems, so that employees are now evaluated on their accomplishments, not merely on the basis of seniority or hours worked.
Still, the change is gradual. Some Japanese workers say that despite what their employers say, pressures remain to work late and to skip vacations.
Furthermore, in Japanese companies, in which employees often work in teams, it has been considered an imposition on colleagues to take a long vacation. It can also be seen as a lack of dedication.
The government has also been increasing the number of holidays in addition to working towards five-day workweek. But further moves to cut working hours are starting to find opposition. As the five-day workweek proliferates, some people feel that they don't need any more holidays.
An interesting example of the pace of the change and the people's own resistance to it is the response to measures taken by some companies, such as Toyota, that makes public address announcements every hour after 7 p.m. at some offices pointing out the importance of rest and urging workers to go home. Dozens of large corporations have also implemented "no overtime days", which require employees to leave the office promptly at 5:30 p.m. However, few workers actually take advantage of this, opting to stay in the office with the lights off or simply taking their work home.
Recently, the national government took advantage of international trade pressure to change the law, making it more convenient for corporations to manage long working hours more cost-effectively. Unpaid and so-called voluntary overtime work has become very common. Japanese Labor Standards do not limit overtime work as long as there is a collective agreement between labor and management. Most overtime has been regularly included in the work day under the collective agreement with cooperative enterprise unions.