Over the last two weeks, I’ve had the privilege of being witness to a fascinating industrial dispute at Takaoka City Hall. Now, I know that’s not exactly a first line to set your pulse racing, but bear with me. It started slowly, with people handing out flyers outside the entrance. I didn’t really look at them, and being one of those funny foreign types you hear about I wasn’t given one either. Then, one day, it seemed to have got a little bit more serious. The flyer hander-outers were accompanied by a car playing martial-type music, which was a little alarming. But, having determined that no nationalist coup d`etat had taken place, I carried on. Today, however, I was issued with one of the flyers; presumably they hadn’t been reaching their quota or something. Glancing over it in the two minutes it takes to get to my third floor office, it seemed to be a list of grievances that city hall workers had, including unpaid overtime, low wages, no channels of communication with their bosses, and the fact that some of them worked such long hours that their children had forgotten who they were and had taken to calling the postman `daddy`.
This situation, though, is surely the norm for most workers in Japan. A friend of mine who works for a local newspaper, often works from 8.30 in the morning and doesn’t get home until past 10pm, in addition to which he sometimes gets calls at 3am to go and report on some minor incident or other. And this is a small newspaper in a small, uneventful town which once led on the front page with the headline “Man falls from ladder; is unhurt”, so what life must be like at the national dailies I can’t imagine. I presumed that the activists at city hall would just hand out some flyers, realize nothing was going to be done, and then trudge back to their desks with that look on their faces which is somehow peculiar to the Japanese salaryman; the one which expresses all at once their mild despondency at the hopelessness of their situation, the knowledge that they will probably do the same job until being pensioned off at a ripe old age, and the realization that, should they try to change their situation they will be opposed at every turn.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I went into my office, and was promptly informed by my colleague that a strike was to take place that very morning! Images of picket lines, camp fires and rousing renditions of The Red Flag or the Japanese equivalent sprung to mind. I asked how long the strike was going to last.
`Until nine o’clock`.
my colleague replied.
I thought this odd – why would you strike until so late? Surely even the Japanese don’t do overtime even when on strike? Then, a thought hit me. It can’t be, I told myself. I looked at my watch. It was just before 8.30am. I asked my colleague, with some trepidation;
`nine o’clock…in the morning?`
`You’re going to go on strike from 8.30am to 9am? Why such a short time?`
`Well, if it was for longer, it would be a nuisance to city hall`
(in the most incredulous voice you can imagine) `Isn’t that, rather the point of a strike`
`Maybe…anyway, I’ve got to go. It’s starting`.
And with that, 190 city hall employees solemnly proceeded downstairs, out of the doors, and stood there. Having a chat. No slogans, no singing, no picket lines (more of a picket huddle, if anything). And, at 9am, they all returned to their offices and worked their socks off as usual, while I looked on, incredulous. I imagine a lot of them stayed at work 30 minutes longer than normal, too, just to make up for their morning absence. One feels that the miners` strike might not have been quite such the seminal event that it was in British politics if they had just had an extra cup of tea in the morning and turned up thirty minutes into their shift, before allowing the mines to be closed. When I mentioned the miners` strike to my colleague, saying that it lasted for 11 months, she gave me a look normally reserved for someone who comes into your office with his underpants on his head and announces himself to be a representative of Ming the Merciless.
So, showing immense resolve, the big cheeses have refused to be cowed by the half hour strike. Still, the activists will not stop their relentless program of action. They now plan an hour long strike to take place tomorrow.
When does it start?
When is the official end of the City Hall working day?
They’ve planned their second strike, in another unconventional gambit, to take place outside of working hours. Maybe if they ever get onto whole day strikes, they will just do it from 5.30pm to 8.30 the following morning, so they can do a full days` work but still have time to fit in a strike. Perhaps the out of hours strike is intended as a protest against the unpaid overtime that so many of them do. In this case, we have an example of perhaps the only country in the world where leaving on time is considered industrial action. Are we witnessing the creation of a new Orwellian doublespeak; a strike outside of working hours, freedom is slavery and so on?
Or, we have activists whose actions are so seemingly illogical, so opposed to the normative concepts of going on strike, that they can only be seen as intentional and visionary? Perhaps they intend to make fortunes with a forthcoming publication `How not to strike`, or perhaps they are acting so contrary to expectations we can actually see it as the first blast of the trumpet against conformity and order from disestablishment anarchists.
I fear that the latter is unlikely. I don’t want to mock them; they are, at least, taking action where the majority of workers just accept their lot. They undoubtedly should be allowed to leave on time and spend some time with the children before the postman officially adopts them. You should never see the lights of city hall on at 11pm, as you sometimes do. I wish them all the luck in the world with their action. They’re going to need it.