I’m going to try to give a neutral descriptive analysis of my Japanese office because I think it might provide useful insight into a culture many westerners are unfamiliar with. I should preface this with the fact that my own work experience is limited and I have not worked in a business office or government office other than the one I’m describing.
So here goes.
I work for the board of education of a village government, which is a local government below the prefectural government, which is below the national Japanese government.
The board of education is primarily located inside the greater village government office building with a branch office including child and family support workers. Our primary office in the village government building is one room with two doors and one wall of windows on the north side. It’s a relatively small room and contains thirteen work desks (12 occupied and one empty) arranged roughly in two vertical columns. Most of the desks face another desk and the two top officials in the office, the super-intendant and vice super-intendant have their desks slightly separated and closer to the windows. There are no dividers above the level of the desks and we can see each other easily. Phones are shared between workers. Between the super-intendant and vice super-intendant’s desks there is a small meeting area with couches and comfortable chairs and a coffee table.
In terms of facilities and technology our office has a large document printer capable of printing one meter tall and very very long paper documents, which is used for event banners and the like and is often borrowed by other departments as there is probably only one in the entire village office. I believe we also house the server which contains the necessary databases for running schools and village education services. Beyond that we have typical office supplies like printers, color printers, scanners, digital cameras, copiers, big hole punchers, etc.
In terms of jobs represented in my office there are a surprising collection. The following descriptions are based entirely on my own observations and perceptions and may not accurately reflect reality. My own observations are limited by my experiences and language ability which is growing but still incomplete.
The super-intendant (kyou-iku-chou 教育長) appears to generally control the direction of education in the village and manages personnel decisions at the highest levels. He also regularly meets with school principals, presumably to discuss problems, solutions, and the general direction of things to be done. He is also the head of the physical office and a speaker at many events.
The vice super-intendant (kyou-iku ji-chou 教育次長) appears to manage the assets and finances of the board of education especially regarding their dispersal amongst the schools and other facilities under the board of education’s control. If anyone wants to purchase something new they typically have to get permission from him.
The vice super-intendant has an assistant (kyou-iku ji-chou ho-sa 教育次長補佐) who appears to perform primarily accounting work related to the assets and finances of the office. She is also relatively highly ranked in terms of superiority in the office and decision making, though obviously trumped by the top two bosses.
Below that in seniority is a position I do not fully understand but definitely involves the management of after-school education and probably the village library, which is completely run under the supervision of the board of education.
Below that is a position that works in what appears to be data entry and accounting for the pre-schools in the village. The ranking of this position probably has more to do with the seniority of the individual occupying it than the work itself (more on this sort of seniority later).
Below that are two positions that are primarily event coordinators. Together they also manage the village sports park and its accounting. One of these two is my direct supervisor for the time being, though this position is likely to shift in April when personnel changes occur. Among the events planned and run by these two positions are the Village Marathon event which drew about one thousand four hundred participants from around the country, a village sports festival, human rights event, coming of age ceremony, and many many others.
Below that is a position called “Training Member” (ken-shuu-in 研修員) this position is filled by pulling an existing teacher from their post at the school and giving them a variety of extra responsibilities including direction of foreign language activities (i.e. what I teach), communications with other school districts, and assisting the super-intendant with various other tasks. I believe the point is to expand the range of experience of a teacher for a few years before returning them to the classroom, potentially for opportunities to advance their career.
Next in line is a special secretarial employee who is not employed in a similar fashion as those mentioned above but has a “temporary” (rin-ji 臨時) contract, which can be renewed. She carries out a variety of secretarial work and greatly helps improve the efficiency of everything and everyone else in the office. She also assists with events and other tasks as they arise.
Next is another “temporary” employee who’s primary work seems to be running one of the after school programs. I do not know/understand what other responsibilities may be involved, she goes to manage that program every day that school is in session.
Next is me. I’m an assistant language teacher (gai-koku-go shi-dou jo-shu 外国語指導助手) for five schools and also run a weekly adult class freely provided by the village. Although not a work duty I’ve also started doing read-alouds at the library and do my best to participate in village events.
Lastly is someone who is not technically employed by the board of education but operates a village health and sports club in along with the board of education and thus has a desk here for taking calls and doing preparatory and organizational work for that club.
And now about employment in the office/village. There is an application process one can begin to join the ranks of the official village employees. It’s a bit challenging and involves a test and apparently a fairly rigorous serious of interviews. Once accepted you are an “official village employee” which I believe used to carry life-time employment benefits, but no longer does. Still, it’s a fairly secure government job. As an official village employee, I don’t believe you have much say in terms of what position you occupy. Every April personnel changes shift people from one office to another within the village, and to and from schools within and outside of the village. These personnel decisions are made by the department heads and the village chief (mayor) (son-cho 村長) in order to spread experience among the employees and I believe to generate widely experienced generally knowledgeable public employees, rather than specialists. There may be other reasons for these personnel shifts as well, but for all intents and purposes it is a cultural fixture and explains a lot of the reason Japanese workers in businesses are often sent abroad, or transferred far away from their homes and sometimes without their families.
Regarding office mentality, I’ve come to realize some interesting benefits of the open and communal office environment as well as some of the problems. On the positive side it encourages teamwork and oversight. It’s easy to catch a mistake someone’s making if you can see and hear them making it and people are typically quick to assist if something comes up that an individual can’t handle alone. I believe it also helps further group communication in positive ways as there are no barriers between each other.
On the down side, there are many many distractions. Even for people who have a great capacity to focus through outside stimuli and distractions there are often phone calls that must be answered by someone, even if it’s someone who’s not in charge of the caller’s inquiry, thus interrupting the work flow of whoever picked it up. This might not sound like too terrible of a thing, but if you’re very busy and there are many phone calls (as there often are) this time-drain can add up. I also think it’s good that the bosses can see the workers and the workers can see the bosses. It encourages the feeling of teamwork and equality when everyone’s together in the same room.
Well, that’s my tentative analysis of my office. Happy to elaborate or answer any questions I can.