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Sitting at the window ledge – the madogiwa-zoku

This entry was posted by on Sunday, 18 April, 2010 at

Sitting by the window
Generally speaking, getting fired from a Japanese company is virtually impossible. Although, I do want to stress that due to the recent worldwide economic downturn, even Japanese companies have changed a bit in that sense. I do believe though, that when we see an upturn again and the Japanese economy gets better, most companies will fall back to their traditional post-war economic boom ways of working again…

Anyway, back to my original point – due to many factors, people don’t tend to get fired from Japanese companies, instead they get pushed aside and placed at “the window ledge” (madogiwa – 窓際) – the term for these workers are “window ledge tribe” (madogiwazoku – 窓際族). What is means in reality is that they get placed somewhere in the company where they don’t get in the way, don’t get any work to do, but still receive salary. They are completely frozen out of the community and by their peers, leading to either a) they leave the company voluntarily, or b) they stick it out until the bitter end (i.e. retirement, as there is no, absolutely no, way back into the warm company family). There is of course a c) as well – although it’s very drastic and I would hope that it’s decreased recently, and that is the suicide option. Being placed by the window ledge can mean so great shame to a person that he/she feels that taking his/her own life is the only option.

Now an important note about being placed by the window ledge – in most cases it’s less about being an unskilled person and more about being problematic and “not fitting in.” Common reasons for being relegated to the “tribe” are:

  • Having upset some important person at work
  • Being disliked by coworkers
  • Cannot work well together with co-workers
  • and of course, last but not least

  • Being a hopeless fool who can’t do any work

Of course, apart from the above signs of not fitting in and thereby being moved to the side – historically it was perhaps not such a dramatic affair. Due to the traditional, post-war corporate style of giving everyone life-time employment as well as pay & titles based on seniority, it was a rather natural next step for people around middle management who did not seem fit for top management, but had “paid their dues” and could not be fired, but kept their nice title and paycheck and was sort of “pre-retired” to the window ledge.

After the economic bubble of post-war Japan burst in the late 80’s, it obviously became more difficult for companies to retain “madogiwa-zoku.” Three different approaches have emerged since then which are preferred by companies in a bit of an economic squeeze, and they are: (1) re-education or similar activities to increase productivity of unproductive workers, (2) outplacement to subsidiaries or other companies, and (3) foreign-style pre-retirement packages. I will go out on a limb here and say that option (3) is a very recent addition to Japanese companies management of unneeded staff, and probably still is almost unheard of. Even in international companies acting in Japan, “coaching out” unproductive staff by giving them a package is seen as something inherently strange and all other options will evaluated until taking that option.

Photo by rambingrovers


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