The most common gripe I hear from white-collar employees at Japanese companies is about the fluid meaning of “quitting time.” The feeling is that even if a worker has finished their tasks for the day, it is considered bad form to leave the office before their colleagues or supervisors do. There are, of course, no established rules that dictate such conduct, and I hesitate to call it a custom but even after three decades of debate over the question of unnecessary overtime and lost productivity in the Japanese workplace, there is still great hesitancy on the part of employees to go home “on time.”
This issue is the premise of the TBS drama series “Watashi, Teiji de Kaerimasu.” (“I Will Not Work Overtime, Period!”; Tuesdays, 10 p.m.), which is based on a popular novel. The bluntness of the title suggests it’s a comedy. After all, leaving work at 6 p.m. should hardly be considered a rebellious act. So far, the show has used its pseudo-provocative high concept as a means of addressing other workplace issues, such as gender distinctions in job advancement, paid parental leave and problematic hierarchical structures, and, in doing so, passes over the comic potential of its titular idea, that someone who makes a point of leaving the office when they’re supposed to is an iconoclast.
The “watashi” of the title is Yui Higashiyama (Yuriko Yoshitaka), an employee of a web design firm who hardly knew her father because of his punishing work schedule, and so has made it clear that she will go home every day at 6 p.m., using her favorite Chinese restaurant’s happy hour, which ends at 6:10 p.m., as frivolous justification. Her company, Net Heroes, seems OK with her somewhat defiant stance against convention, and over the course of the first five episodes a philosophy emerges. Higashiyama wants to get married and have kids, and intends to build a career without compromising those goals.
When the firm lands a contract with a beverage maker, the project is handed over to Yae Shizugatake (Yuki Uchida), Higashiyama’s mentor at the company who has just returned from maternity leave. Higashiyama is encouraged by the choice, but another colleague, the no-nonsense Mitani (Shishido Kavka), seems slightly miffed since it was her proposal that won the contract. The idea of sticking Shizugatake with this responsibility is that of the new division manager, Fukunaga (Yusuke Santamaria), who, rumor has it, is rebounding from bankruptcy. He gives Shizugatake a chance to jump back on the career track as a working mother, but even with her husband acting as a mostly stay-at-home dad, Shizugatake finds it difficult to juggle her domestic responsibilities and her workload, and immediately makes a huge miscalculation that angers the client.
Higashiyama sticks to her designated work hour policy but starts to feel guilty watching Shizugatake put in overtime in her new capacity and then show up in the morning groggy from lack of sleep. Complicating matters is the fact that Fukunaga has brought with him an assistant, Taneda (Osamu Mukai), who was once engaged to Higashiyama. She broke off the relationship because he proved to be too much of a workaholic. Higashiyama’s present fiancee, the mellow, kitchen-savvy Takumi Sawa (Yuichi Nakamaru), works for a rival web design company. She tries to keep this intelligence from her colleagues and when they’re together, she insists Sawa not talk about work.
But work is what the series is about, and gradually it reveals its true intentions, which are only marginally concerned with Higashiyama’s contrarian attitude. The fact is, she’s good at her job. As a challenge to her carefree facade Taneda puts her in charge of another new account with a sporting goods manufacturer knowing that she hates sports, which she admits to at the start of her presentation. At first, the company seems offended by her candor, but one executive appreciates it, as well as her idea, which is to broaden the company’s customer base from diehard athletes to the general public.
In other words, the show isn’t really about working hours, and although there are similarities in the way advertising campaigns are incorporated into storylines, no viewer is going to expect “Mad Men” (no sex, no existential angst). At the same time, no one should expect the late Hitoshi Ueki, either. In the 1960s, Ueki starred in a series of feature films as “Japan’s most irresponsible man,” an office factotum who took advantage of his company position to have fun and basically shirk work. He was a corrective to the stereotype of the selfless “corporate warrior” even before the stereotype was firmly established, a pop-culture figure of resistance during Japan’s headlong charge into the global industrial breach. More significantly, he was genuinely funny.
“I Will Not Work Overtime, Period!” is too respectful of viewers’ feelings about work to make fun of its situations, preferring instead to be critical of office norms that confound productivity or interfere with workers’ nonwork existence. It’s obvious that Shizugatake’s work-life imbalance cannot be solely blamed on her job. Although her husband is a thoroughly hands-on father, he still expects Shizugatake to fold laundry and pack lunch boxes. In what passes for a running joke, she inadvertently keeps important baby-related documents in her handbag and has to dispatch Higashiyama to messenger them to her husband when emergencies arise. Then there’s Higashiyama’s subordinate, Kurusu (Yuki Izumisawa), a freshman employee who keeps threatening to quit. It’s a common enough real-life circumstance that the producers could have exploited it for a laugh, but they address it earnestly, as if it were an issue on par with Fukunaga’s cluelessly oppressive management style.
This semi-serious approach might have made sense 20 years ago when gratuitous overtime was still a rarely discussed problem, but it’s been in the news for at least a decade now and has even been debated in the Diet. At this point, the most effective route to change is probably not through legislation but via the funny bone.