The rise and rise of Japan’s unsackable slacker

Over the past few days, people in chat rooms across Japan have been grabbing a neat rendition of “boutto suru“: the state of sitting at a desk, staring into space, disengaged, unproductive and, in this particular context, impossible to trash.

The term is currently spinning in the ether due to an investigation published by Shikigaku, a Tokyo-based consulting firm, into the phenomenon of hatarakanai ojisanthe old man (or, more rarely, his female equivalent) in the office who manages to get away with not working.

When asked if such a person existed in their workplace, 49.2% of workers in their 20s and 30s at Japanese companies with more than 300 employees said there was. Collectively, that’s a lot of paid daydreaming, but would it be money well spent?

For many who took to social media to discuss the survey, the slight surprise was that the figure was so low. This zoned villain, in all his irredeemable indolence, felt universally recognizable and, often, easily nameable. “Staring into space,” along with “discussing nothing” and “having snacks, cigarettes, and bathroom breaks in a row” were by far the most common responses to how his hours were passed over in silence.

The survey, which interviewed 300 people in different industries, also showed a strong consensus among young workers on why hatarakanai ojisan exist: seniority wage structures and protective labor laws simultaneously erode his motivation, remove the fear of dismissal and relieve him of the need to produce results. Incompetence can also mean that no one asks him to do a real job.

The tone of Shikigaku research (versions of which could probably be conducted elsewhere in the world without wildly different results) was predictably negative and fraught with much intergenerational friction – most notably around hatarakanai ojisandepends on the juniors to take over.

But it has particular resonance in Japan, where the working-age population is rapidly shrinking and where investors see persistent productivity gains at the heart of the country’s economic woes. For those who extrapolate hatarakanai ojisan in a larger corporate image, he is symbolic of all that has held back governance reform – an unshakable anchor to the old ways. The structures that hold it in place have a powerful influence on how Japan takes its next steps.

The harm done by hatarakanai ojisan, according to the survey, is that it is demoralizing: the salary structures of many Japanese companies mean that the older colleague who is not working is paid more for this status. What is the point, for a young worker, of breaking his guts if this effort has no chance of being rewarded? Deeper into the survey, respondents expressed a desire for performance-based salary increases and promotions – a shift that would shift the measurement of white-collar work from “perceived work hours” to “output real” and would transform the workplace landscape in Japan.

In all of this, however, the anti-hatarakanai ojisan the lobby has to be careful what it wishes for. As frustrating as this numbed time server can be to his immediate colleagues, his days of inactivity are paid for by the private sector rather than the taxpayer. Shareholders may hate it, but at least when Japanese companies talk about concern for “other stakeholders,” there’s a tendency toward honesty.

Moreover, despite the optimistic narrative that Japanese young people’s attitudes towards work are changing, job change remains relatively low and the desire for stable employment is at the core. A visible handful of staff surplus to requirements, in times of tight labor markets and economic ferocity, is like feathers on a peacock: unnecessarily extravagant, and therefore alluring, clutter.

And, on the other hand, hatarakanai ojisan can be a secret shield against takeover. Increasingly, analysts say, domestic mergers and acquisitions in Japan will be driven by labor shortages as the labor market reaches what CLSA strategist Nicholas Smith calls a “singularity” in which it there are no more people outside the labor market to target for companies – and when the best option for some may be to buy staff in bulk through hostile mergers and acquisitions. Hatarakanai ojisan the elusive worthlessness, when the due diligence investigation catches him returning from his sixth cigarette break, makes a nice poison pill.

Those flickers of benefits aside, however, the Shikigaku report paints a bleak picture. Towards the end, young respondents were asked if they thought they could become hatarakanai ojisan in the future. A disturbing 30.3% said they could if wages continued to be based on seniority rather than performance. Bamboo that bends, as the Japanese proverb says, is stronger than oak that resists.

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