Japan

Spanish PM’s ‘Japanese-style strike’ remark shows warped view of working in Japan

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Japan’s work ethic and pride in a job well-done has earned the country plenty of attention around the globe. This is, after all, the country where even convenience store clerks are expected to comply with strict standards of professional conduct and a mere 20-second train delay is grounds for an official apology.

However, sometimes tales of Japanese workers’ legendary dedication is just that: a legend, and not reality. Last week, Japanese Twitter users were surprised to learn that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, during a speech on labor and economic conditions, used the phrase huelga a la japonesa, which translates to “a Japanese-style strike” but which actually describes something no right-minded Japanese person would ever do.

Rajoy’s comments came in response to a proposed protest intended to draw attention to wage and gender inequality in the workplace. But rather than sit out work, organizers were calling for employees who felt underpaid to over-perform, and do twice as much work as normal in order to cause problems for their employers through excess production, a tactic called huelga a la japonesa/ "Japanese-style strike” in Spanish parlance.

The phrase’s roots lie in a perception that Japanese people are so incredibly hard-working that instead of halting work when they’re feeling mistreated, employees, en masse, kick things up a notch, glutting factories and warehouses with more product than the company can store, distribute, or sell, leading to economic losses and forcing employers to treat their workers better.

Yes, it’s true that strikes and labor demonstrations are far less common in Japan than in many other major economies around the world, and that when protests do happen they tend to be orderly and completely lacking in violence or property damage. But no, workers in Japan don’t try to kill their employers with kindness through huelga a la japonesa tactics.

Japanese Twitter user @nachi_loco spread the word.

@nachi_loco’s tweet was the first time many Japanese Twitter users had ever heard of the phrase, though their comments suggested that some could see, through a wry sort of logic, how the expression came to be.

“No idea why they’d think we’d do that. It’s so much easier to NOT work during a strike.”

“Well, people have been calling us Japanese ‘worker ants’ for decades now.”

“Wait, do they get paid overtime for huelga a la japonesa in Spain? Because in Japan doing extra work like that just means you’re doing unpaid overtime.”

“So does this mean we’re having ‘Japanese-style strikes’ every day?”

“Personally, I’m just happy we’re seen as diligent and dedicated.”

“Wouldn’t a real Japanese-style strike be splitting work that one person could handle up for an entire committee to do, then squabbling over trivial details so much that it kills productivity?”

In all fairness, it’s not clear if Rajoy and the other politicians participating in the discussion are actually under the impression that Japanese people go on strike in the huelga a la japonesa manner, or if the phrase is simply a relic from an era where first-hand information about life in Japan was harder to come by that’s since become a set phrase in the Spanish language. Rest assured, though, that when Japanese employees forcibly double their workload, they’re more likely to end up killing themselves than making their bosses think they’re unhappy with their work conditions.

Sources: Twitter/@nachi_loco via Hachima Kiko, El Pais

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