Being a newbie and the only foreigner (who has a “Japanese face” and can speak Japanese though) in a very traditional Japanese company, my first 3months in the office was a nightmare.
I had a senior as my trainer. He was teaching me literally “everything from very beginning” including how to answer a phone with smile and nodding, how to fold an A3 paper into A4, how to write a mail to other departments or clients, how to make a report by Excel, the font, the border style, the wording… everything.
It was great if he didn’t “educate” me everyday by this:
“Just use your head! Well, if you really have a head.”
“Are you an idiot?”
“You don’t feel shame on yourself?”
What shocked me more was when he yelling at me in front of the whole office coworkers, nobody stopped him, nobody said anything, nobody raised eyes.
I was completely shocked and confused- What’s wrong with him? What’s wrong with the office? And, what’s wrong with me?
I asked my then boyfriend this question:
“Why they bully me?”
And this is our conversation:
He: “Poor you… That’s really tough. Being a newbie is always tough in Japan.”
Me:“I’m a newbie means they have the right to bully me?”
He asked what exactly my trainer (let’s call him D) did and said to me. He asked if D physically abuse me, if D said mean things too when I did nothing wrong at work, if D ordered me to do impossible work, if D taught me wrong things or ignored my troubles at work, if D made other coworkers ignore/ against me.
I said no.
He:“Then he’s not bullying you. He’s training you, harshly.”
Me:“You train somebody by calling her ‘idiot’, ‘no brain’??”
He:“Actually yes. Japan had this very harsh ‘syugyou’ (training) tradition among craftsmen in ancient times. Usually trainers treat their trainees harshly including yelling at them, punishing them, ordering them to work endlessly like slaves, even hitting them, insulting them, until they become ‘ichininmae’ (experienced and highly skilled respectable craftsmen). The harshness is considered responsible to the trainees. It’s for their own good. This harsh training spirit still commonly remains in schools, companies nowadays. A senior is supposed to teach a junior strictly and harshly. They are supposed to care, protect, educate and lead juniors (“mendou wo miru”) by all means. They have rights and duties to do so. Somehow you can even consider the relationship between seniors and juniors as parents and children.”
Me:“But I’m an adult! That’s ridiculous! How can he consider himself as “a parent” and me as his ‘child’? We are coworkers equally working in the company.”
He: “You are right. But things don’t work that way. And, to be honest, he’s not bullying you, pretty much the opposite. From what you said and what he taught you, I think he has high expectations on you. He’s trying hard to develop you. Think about it, if he really wanted to bully you, the easiest way would be ignoring you, teaching you nothing, making you a bad work performance. If you consider his current training as bullying, react and rebel, he may really bully you. As a senior he has the power to do so. Then you would be in real trouble.”
Me:“Then what should I do?”
He:“Work hard. Do exactly what the senior orders you to do. When you make mistakes, admit it, apologize, correct it immediately. Show your hard work.”
The next day, I wrote an email to D that I was grateful to his strict training and expectations, and I would try my best (issyokenmei ganbarimasu!). I sent the mail right before I left the company, 11pm.
I worked even harder. I stopped asking why. I did overtime everyday. When I had nothing to do, I still stayed at the company until late night and pretended to work hard, like other coworkers in my office did. I did exactly what others did.
2months later, D and I did an important presentation to the manager. We were highly praised. D told the manager I prepared the presentation completely by myself without his help. He did help.
6months later, I won a special reward for a project. It was D and our manager who recommended me to the company. I made a friend in my office who said “You are so lucky to have D as the trainer.”
2year later, 2newbies joined my office. I was no longer a newbie. Nobody yelled at me any longer. New newbies received harsh harsh “training” by their trainers. Sometimes after overtime I invited them to eat yakitori (grilled chicken) and drink beer, listen to them complaining their seniors, share “tricks” about pretending to work hard.
Back to the question.
“Why is office bullying so common in Japan?”
Besides the reasons other great answers already mentioned- the intentional bully, let me add this:
The “I-do-it-for-your-own-good” harshness and authoritarianism.
Seniors might have good intentions, but behave mean and brutal. It feels no difference with “bully” for juniors. (And seniors might have bad intentions too, they ARE bullies.)
The parenting-like training and feudal-paterfamilias-like system still commonly exist in offices and schools in Japan.
Harshness may achieve wonderful crafts and technologies, but can’t we have better ways?
Seniors who used to be juniors, who used to suffer by such “bully-like” situation, if this “parenting-like” training is a must, please please do everyone and yourself a favor- please be a soft-hearted “parent”.
– Nell Zhang