After a rainy Saturday afternoon at the cinema a couple of years ago – outside of the football season, obviously – one of my old friends from university in Japan was clearly in a hurry to leave. Her bloodshot eyes betrayed utter exhaustion, and working 14-hour days at the office for the previous few months had clearly taken its toll. I bade her farewell and told her not to work so hard, but apparently, my interpretation had been a little simplistic. ‘Oh no, I don’t really have that much to do’, she explained, ‘but everyone a year or two older than me always arrives at eight. It would look bad if I didn’t get there by seven’.
Nobody in our group but me, the only foreigner, expressed any surprise at this remark. I cannot state categorically that it never happens anywhere else, but personal experience working for a major electronics company has seemed to confirm that this need to keep up appearances is one of the major contributors to overtime in Japan. Indeed, it is perhaps second only to delays caused by the inability of younger employees to express their objections to the mistaken ideas of their supposed superiors. The manoeuvrings of Shigeru Yoshida’s government within global politics in the 1950s helped galvanise the population towards decades of unprecedented growth and prosperity, but one wonders if the overly conservative nature of those growing up in this era hasn’t brought about unnecessary toil for Japanese workers since then. With globally-renowned technology and such a fabulously dedicated workforce, it is almost tragic to ponder just how powerful this country could be if only its basic workplace protocol were managed with a little more common sense and efficiency.
Of course, now we are in the midst of a global recession, companies and financial institutions throughout the world are under much more immediate pressure to streamline their operations and eliminate anything that might be deemed wasteful. They say that Japan is a good place to be in a crisis, but the excesses of the past have led to significant job losses here too, and only now – and for this reason – are those in charge beginning to work to reduce the nation’s massive overtime burden. There are, I’m sure, a whole range of approaches that could be used to achieve this, but in any case, a J. League meeting between Gamba Osaka and Montedio Yamagata was at least sufficient incentive for 10,159 people to finish work early and make it to Banpaku for 7.30pm last Friday.
Football has a curious relationship with the final day of the working week. TV influence and Thursday night UEFA Cup football provide high-profile action on each of the other six days, but the Bundesliga is the only major league to feature a regular Friday fixture. In England, the unique Good Friday programme has been lost to the swollen Champions League, leaving only the odd Championship or League One match attempting to steal some attention before the weekend starts in earnest. Last week’s game in the J. League, meanwhile, was only a freak occurrence – Gamba travelled to Indonesia the following day ahead of their ACL match with Sriwijaya tonight – and with the attendance well down on the home side’s weekend average, it probably won’t be repeated too often. As the ban on supporters using drums after 9pm suggests, Japanese football wasn’t designed with weeknights in mind.
For those of us who were there, though, it was a terrific experience. The crowd may have been no larger than at most midweek games, but the atmosphere was clearly enhanced as fans could enjoy their Friday nights out without the prospect of work to follow in the morning. Even if the drum ban was particularly harsh on their much smaller number – indeed, it was not until just after 9pm that Gamba scored twice to secure a 2-1 win – the away supporters who made it all the way down from Yamagata deserve plenty of credit for their part as well. It’s nice that we football fans were able to do our bit for the economy, and in fact it was so much fun that, if only I were old enough for my opinions to count, I might even suggest we did it more often.