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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Labor Relations

Watanabe Kazuo

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To purchase Labor Relations

Title: Labor Relations
Author: Watanabe Kazuo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1979 (Eng. 1994)
Length: 134 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Labor Relations - US
Labor Relations - UK
Labor Relations - Canada
  • Japanese title: 会社を喰う
  • Japanese Business Novel
  • "Introduction and Edited Translation by Tamae Prindle"

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Our Assessment:

C : quite a few bits of interest, but a rough piece of work

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       As its title suggests, Labor Relations is an example of the peculiar Japanese genre known as 経済小説 (keizai shōsetsu) -- the 'business novel' -- which attracted some notice even abroad during the 1980s and 1990s; translator Tamae K. Prindle has translated several of these into English. (The original Japanese title, 会社を喰う ('Devouring the Company'), is more vivid, but, as it turns out, Prindle's choice of the English title is quite fitting, too.)
       The novel seems to get right to the point as to the stakes and drama, the opening sentence of the short Prologue-chapter revealing:

     A man with an odd name, Haruo Chinbô, chief accountant at the Kyoto Yamashiro Department Store, embezzled 400 million yen.
       That works out to roughly US$2,000,000 at the exchange rates of the time of the action, a tidy sum by any measure. In this low-margin business, it represents a huge loss for the company -- "the embezzled 400 million yen was equivalent to four years' earning for the department store".
       It's a pretty good hook, readers naturally curious how one person could embezzle such a huge amount without being detected. Being chief accountant presumably makes it easy to cook the books -- but, one imagines, wiping out four years of profits surely should have attracted some notice.
       Surprisingly, then, apparent culprit Haruo Chinbô -- who must have had some neat trick up his sleeve to have pulled this off -- does not figure prominently at the beginning of the novel. In fact, for much of the novel he plays no role whatsoever -- only popping up far into the story; it's nearly page 100 (of a 125-page novel) before he is mentioned again.
       In a way this is a brilliant misdirect -- Haruo Chinbô presented as some kind of mastermind (so one imagines, given the amounts involved) and then kept from view for most of the novel, the story instead puttering along in what seem to be completely different directions. But it's a big leap Watanabe takes .....
       Yamashiro Department Store is one of four large department stores in Kyoto -- third in the pecking order, with the fourth, Fujiyoshi, nipping at its heels with its much higher growth-rate. It was founded by Genbê Shimokakiuchi, who wanted his only son, Sadao, to take over the firm when the time came. Having had his son at an advanced age, Sadao was too young to take over in a corporate culture that values seniority above almost everything else, and so Genbê decided:
to choose someone to house-sit the presidency, to act as a bridge -- someone who would humbly hand over the post when Sadao was ready for it. The house-sitter had to be a brainless servant like Oonuki.
       Oonuki might have been brainless, and not a very good businessman, but he liked being in a position of power and showed no intention of handing over the reins.
       When the more nimble Fujiyoshi store scores yet another coup, Oonuki is forced into action -- not that he has any good ideas as to what to do. But he has conniving underlings, and they see the key to getting things done in getting lackeys appointed to lead the employee union.
       The union is theoretically powerful -- after all:
All the full-time employees below the rank of section chief were regular union members. There were about a thousand of them.
       While hardly very activist, the union still could exert some influence on company policy and activity. Neutering it would make it much easier for the (corrupt) executives to abuse their positions and line their pockets. And so much of the beginning of Labor Relations is devoted to the plans for and then the execution of a union take-over, replacing its leadership with men who only served other masters.
       With tricks straight out of the American Republican party playbook of voter suppression in the union election (and, when that isn't enough to ensure the desired outcome, more radical action) the company insiders ham-fistedly but effectively manage to take over a union that doesn't show much resistance. Most of the employees aren't invested enough to protest what happens -- outrageous though it is --, while those who take it seriously are effectively sidelined. Everyone ostensibly wants what's best for the company, so no one dares ruffle too many feathers.
       Still, the result is catastrophic:
     The raison d'être of a labor union ought to be the protection of its members from company abuse. But the Yamashiro's new labor union did the opposite. It pressured its members harder than the company, in the name of "production promotion." The members were in a sorry plight.
       Meanwhile, a number of the people in more senior positions at the store have figured out various ways to skim money left and right. Labor Relations offers interesting insight into department store policies regarding credit and payment, of and by both suppliers and customers, which allow money to be skimmed by those in the right positions; eagerness to avoid the tax man also leads to a variety of dodgy practices that can be further abused. There is no shortage of people in positions of power taking advantage of the system; the only wonder is that the store survives.
       Dubious activity is par for the course, but the power dynamics of the Japanese corporate system complicate some of it. The whims of those in higher positions always pose a threat, and underlings often find themselves at the mercy of their bosses, justifiably worried that they'll be left holding the (emptied) bag and forced to take the blame; pay-offs, in various forms, are the norm. From Watanabe's description, the whole system sounds like an absurd house of cards; it's a wonder the department store does any normal business.
       The pressure is huge even on lowly employees, with one getting into desperate straits by falsifying sales reports so as to seem to be reaching the monthly quota expected of him.
       Several of the characters have no qualms about resorting to even thuggish criminal activity, but most manage simply by manipulating others, the system making it difficult for underlings not to do whatever is demanded of them, no matter how dubious it seems. So too this is how the ultra-straight-laced Haruo Chinbô gets roped into things -- and finds himself left with what amounts to a noose around his neck, the completely helpless fall-guy.
       Labor Relations does offer some fascinating insight into the workings of Japanese business generally, and especially the department store business (of the late 1970s). Corporate hierarchies, from top to bottom, are vividly described here -- though it's hard to imagine one as dysfunctional as this one --, including the fascinating maneuvering of people into positions they are not fit for, from the incompetent who are placed in positions of power (mostly for their puppet-potential) to qualified workers shunted off into areas where their talents are wasted. (Really, the biggest wonder here is that this store hasn't collapsed into a bankrupt heap long ago.)
       There are also some good/horrifying descriptions of Japanese business culture beyond the workplace, notably the importance of connections and the expectations of being wined and dined -- and offered women. (It goes without saying that all those in any position of significance, much less worthy of being wined and dined, are men.)
       What is tolerated extends far:
Miyai was good-natured, small-statured, and hard-working. In addition, he was an indispensable entertainer at Dining Services parties. When he got carried away, he put on a Japanese summer robe and danced his specialty, the roach fish catcher's dance, and adeptly pulled out that part of his body which looked like a fish.
     "Oh, gross !" Young girls looked away, but Miyai was never disliked for it.
     He exposed his private parts on purpose, but the way he helter-skelter pushed it back was hilarious; the girls who had supposedly looked away exploded with laughter.
       For all its vivid corporate culture and practice color and detail, Labor Relations is also quite a mess. The story is rough and patchy, and much of the action -- especially the financial trickery -- difficult to follow. Pringle's is described as an: "edited translation" and one suspects a lot was cut here. (Comparisons of translations to Japanese book-size are notoriously difficult to make, but the Japanese edition does clock in at twice the page-length, suggesting the original is indeed (much) longer.) Whatever the reason, much of the story deserves (or needs) to be related in considerably greater (and better structured) detail; as is, it's a rather rushed muddle.
       There's a lot of material, and potential, here, but there's also a great deal going on, and not enough of it is related in sufficiently great detail. With so many bad guys and so many intrigues, Labor Relations is far too busy in this compact form. The translation also feels a bit rough -- not least in so much of the description also feeling compressed.
       It makes for an interesting example of workplace fiction -- with a couple of good storylines woven (but largely almost lost) in it -- and does offer a good glimpse of a slice of Japan in the 1970s, but overall, in this form, it's simply not a very good book.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 June 2021

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Labor Relations: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Watanabe Kazuo (渡辺一雄) lived 1928 to 2014.

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© 2021 the complete review

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