Like many Japanese commercials, the new TV spot for the Regain energy drink reinforces product message with a playful sense of hyperbole. But note the presuppositions about labor goals inherent in the narrative. A train is delayed, so the salaryman army hauls it over land and sea and air in order to…. make it to work on time. And we know that this is the ultimate goal, because our hero checks his watch, says “Yes!” and does that fisted arm pull, which at some point became the universal symbol for “Yes!”
Now, some bosses may have said, “I would rather you have been 15 minutes late and charged us for a cab than broken all of the windows of our meeting room,” but this commercial pretty much supports the idea that being an “ideal worker” in Japan is not about attaining pragmatic goals, increasing profitability, nailing a presentation, or closing deals, but rather punctuality. When the former actions are targets, being a bit late for work isn’t a problem, and hell, a more enterprising worker would have found a local wifi’d Starbucks and done his morning calls until train service starts back up. I mean, there’s no way every single member of this black-suit labor army had a morning meeting. Most of them just probably felt the need to get to the office on time so that they could grab the sole copy of Nikkei’s Marketing Journal and have enough time to take the normal morning’s two to three cigarette breaks.
Again, we see an example of Japanese orthopraxical conceptions of identity and membership: i.e., it is less about what you do at work and more about being punctual, properly suited, showing ambition and effort through strict adherence to rules like punch-in time. I can’t imagine an energy drink commercial showing a suave, rebellious salaryman wearing a light gray suit (with those orange loafers!), showing up late, flouting company policy, but then closing a huge deal to buffer his managers’ chagrin. This guy can’t be a hero in an orthopraxical environment: He’s just an asshole. Labor excellence is all about punctuality and a very simplified expression of dedication.
Cultures are free to choose their own routes to salvation and judgment criteria on individual performance, but I do wonder how this kind of process-oriented conception of work holds up in a more globalized world. The international capitalist view of the workforce is increasingly less concerned with creating a loyal regiment of young men with shiny shoes and polished brass accouterments who properly salute and say, “Sir, yes, sir!” and more concerned with, I don’t know, worker productivity and profitability. Do Japanese companies have a global advantage in promoting this sort of performance evaluation based on minor rule-adherence as the fundamental management strategy?
The other question is “work/life balance,” which Japanese people claim to desire, but is never going to happen when you get bonus points for staying in the office as long as possible regardless of actual work. How would this hypothetical TV commercial play in Japan: A guy drinks Regain and is able to do eight hours of work in five hours, thus letting him go home early, beat the commuter rush, and spend quality time with his wife and children? Seems like a stinker to me.