False Economies

On my second day of work at my present job, I spent over an hour and a half with 6 other people stapling papers together. An estimate of ¥2,500 ($28 at current exchange rates) an hour, based on my conservative guess at our combined average hourly wage, gives a cost of ¥26,250 (almost $300) for that work. While automated document finishing printer/sorter/staplers run about $2500, a power stapler starts at about $100, and a collating attachment for an already expensive high-volume printing machine is a fraction of the total cost, at about $400. In my first three or four months, I had to do a few collating and stapling sessions, and one envelope-stuffing stint. While I admit that personal boredom is a factor in why I’m motivated to point out the waste of time,  it’s also true that my workplace isn’t getting much benefit out of the deal. I mean, we’re talking thousands of dollars of employee time spent on something that they could have hired hourly workers to do at a fraction of the cost.

This is typical of most Japanese companies, though. Rather than get a professional to do the work, hire a temporary employee, or send it out to a shop to get done, most of them will try to do it with whoever they have in-house, with mixed results.

There’s a scene in Lost in Translation where a woman semi-competently translates the commercial director’s comments for Bill Murray’s character. A lot of people overseas complained about it, saying that it was completely unrealistic; that in reality she would have been a professional translator.

Nope, sorry to say that I and most of the foreigners I know who actually live here felt that was totally true to life. Anyone who speaks halfway decent English is deemed capable of translating; anyone whose native language is English and speaks some Japanese is capable of translating. A friend of mine worked for a government office when some members of a foreign royal family came to Japan for a visit. He’s a native English speaker with fluent Japanese, but was not a trained translator. “Meh, he’s part of this office, and he’s got good language skills, so he’ll do,” was the attitude.

This is yet another example of those wild inconsistencies I’ve found in Japan. Everything is specialized, polished, refined, perfected…except for when it isn’t. The expensive Ricoh high-volume printing machines we have at work came with some materials that were obviously put together with crappy clip-art and an old version of MS Word. A proposal for a group trip—a contract worth around $100,000— that was put together by a nationally recognized travel agency was done with photocopies, some reworked slides from a powerpoint presentation, and a cheap color printer.

I’d be horribly embarrassed to present something so unprofessionally done. My wife and I made our own wedding invitations and programs, but I doubt that most of our guests knew that because we worked hard to make sure they looked good. If they hadn’t, we would have gotten a printing shop to do them instead. In Japan, no one would dream of doing their wedding invitations themselves, but major companies think nothing of doing the equivalent of having Sally the receptionist throw together something for a major presentation. Priorities seem seriously skewed to me a lot of the time.