The Indignity of the Temp

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Jiji Press

The cast of the new drama Haken no Hinkaku appear at a press conference.

Haruko Ohmae, the lead character in the hit new Japanese TV drama Haken no Hinkaku, has the sort of job skills that should get her hired on the spot. She can program a computer, chop sushi, speak Russian, operate heavy equipment — and this being Japan, pour tea. But Haruko doesn't have a full-time job. She's a part-timer, a temp — hence the title of the show, which roughly translates to "the dignity of temp workers."

Dignity is one thing temps don't have in Japan, where a worker is often still judged by the quality of the corporation to which they've pledged their lifetime loyalty. (Indeed, Japanese will introduce themselves company name first: "I'm TIME's Bryan Walsh.") Haken — a serial drama that began airing in January and ends this month — is popular in part because it inverts the accepted rules of a Japanese office and satirizes the social divide between full-timers and lowly part-timers.

Efficient, capable and well paid, Haruko (played by the 33-year-old actress Ryoko Shinohara) is a contract worker who has been dispatched to a struggling Tokyo food-manufacturing company. Efficient and deadly capable, she is totally lacking in interpersonal skills — which in Japan, even more than in other countries, are at least as important as actually being able to do the job. The comedy in Haken — which at times resembles a Japanese version of The Office, minus the meanness — comes from Haruko's clashes with her often incompetent full-time colleagues (one of whom is ironically played by Koutaro Koizumi, the adult son of Japan's former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose reforms encouraged Japanese companies to hire more part-timers like Haruko). Although the full-timers began the series condescending to Haruko, every week she saves the company by showcasing one of the skills she's picked up in her years as a temp — like preparing perfect sashimi. In fact, Haruko's victories are on-screen justice for real-life temps. "It feels good to see Haruko tell full-timers things that you cannot say face-to-face," says Kaoru Ishizaki, an office manager in Yokohama who is a fan of the show and a former temp herself.

But the joke may be on full-timers and part-timers alike. Although the salaryman's lifetime employment is still considered the Japanese ideal, today nearly one-third of workers in Japan are part-timers like Haruko, up from 20% in 1994. The change is the result of a painful transformation that saw Japanese corporations drastically cut back on hiring while shedding tens of thousands of workers during the economically disastrous years of the 1990s and early 2000s.

That labor flexibility helped companies make vital cost cuts, and today Japanese corporations are earning record profits while the economy as a whole is in the longest period of sustained growth since World War II. Despite the recovery, however, wages in Japan have remained stagnant. All those companies that cut payroll during the recession years have been slow to add full-time jobs, working their remaining salarymen until they drop and hiring increasing numbers of part-timers to fill the gap.

Done right, the new labor flexibility could have been a boon for Japanese workers as well as companies. While lifetime corporate employment might be secure — especially compared to the unstable lot of workers in the U.S. — in practice it can feel like a straitjacket. Employees in Japan are often still paid by seniority, not by performance, and switching companies in mid-career can mean career suicide. Part-timers have the potential to pick their jobs, be rewarded for skills rather than seniority and be spared the 90-hour workweeks that drive many salarymen to an early grave. In Haken, Haruko tells her full-time colleagues that "overtime is not in my vocabulary," leaves work precisely at 6 p.m. and in between contracts, flies to Spain to work on her flamenco dancing (don't ask). When the company offers her a permanent job, she turns them down, preferring a temp's freedom to the corporate ideal. That attitude appeals to young Japanese who might actually want a life outside of work.

The trouble is, few temps can actually earn a living wage. Almost 40% of contract workers receive salaries that are less than 80% of a full-time wage, contrary to government guidelines. Haruko may command top yen on TV, but good luck jetting to Madrid on your off days when you make less than $11,000 a year, as 34% of male and 55% of female part-timers do. And even putting salary concerns aside, many of those part-timers would still opt for full-time employment if they could. Despite the damage it sustained during the lost decade of the 1990s, the ideal of the company as family among Japanese is still strong — leaving part-timers as veritable orphans. Even Haken — which appears subversive at first, with a protagonist who would rather have her freedom than a full-time job — will probably end up reconfirming old stereotypes. Miho Nakazono, a writer for the show, told a Japanese paper recently: "I feel the performance-based system is not suited for the Japanese. The important point is to coexist." Haruko stands out at the start of Haken because she doesn't need the company; a pragmatist who depends on performance over work relationships, she toils in the office, but she's not of the office. By the end of the series, however, expect Haruko to happily abandon the life of a temp for the warm, sticky familial embrace of the company.

—Reported by Yuki Oda