Power harassment is a relatively newly defined but widespread form of workplace harassment in Japan where people abuse their rank by demeaning their subordinates. But why do people do it?
The term “power harassment” arose in the early 2000s as a way to describe behavior by managers that can be considered abusive to their staff such as publicly reprimanding or even ridiculing them, or forcing them to do excessively menial or humiliating chores outside of their job description.
Last year, only 15 years or so since the concept was officially recognized, there were over 66,000 reported cases of power harassment in Japan. The following story is one such case and is based on the testimony of an unidentified manager as reported by Sankei Shimbun West.
The man, whom we’ll refer to with the ubiquitous pseudonym of Tanaka, was an executive for a major insurance company. In his mid-40s he was promoted to the position of general manager of the Tokai region – the youngest person to have been given such an honor in the company’s history.
Clearing an eight-figure salary (six-figure in US dollars) and in such a good position in his company, things couldn’t be better for this up and coming executive. At least it couldn’t until one fateful day in February of last year, when he was called into the Tokyo headquarters for an unexplained reason.
Upon arriving Tanaka was sent into a room with three “compliance officials” and took a seat. One of the men handed him a paper, the title of which read “Regarding Accusations of Power Harassment.” It wasn’t until this point that he knew what was going on.
“Respond to the questions and then read it out loud please,” one of the officials coldly requested.
Tanaka glanced down the list of dozens of complaints, none of which looked like anything he recalled ever doing. Underneath each “victim” testimony was a blank field for him to handwrite his response.
Tanaka began to think this was a case of mistaken identity, but figured his best course of action was to do what the men told him to.
Reprimanding subordinates in public without using a separate room, read the first complaint. Tanaka jotted something down and then read it aloud.
“I never reprimand my people, I only give them advice,” he recited.
Then there was a lengthy list of comments Tanaka was accused of saying to his subordinates such as “you should go back to elementary school,” and “die, I will kill you” to all of which he wrote and read out that he had never said such things.
The next accusation read; Kicked a locker while shouting at an employee.
“What,” muttered Tanaka muting his shock as he wrote down his response and then read it to the three men, “I wasn’t shouting at anyone. I was the one who was reprimanded by my bosses and I was just letting out some steam.”
The list went on, Called a subordinate with thinning hair ‘bald old man,’ told him to ‘get a rug,’ and left doodles he drew of a popular bald cartoon character on the man’s chair.
▼ The character in question was the elder Namihei-san (pictured left) from Sazae-san, whose baldness is often the source of gags in the long running-series.
Image: Amazon (Cropped by RocketNews24)
Tanaka angrily wrote something down and then read it out in an increasingly agitated voice, “I’m balding too. We joke like that every day, it’s a bonding thing between me and him.”
Perhaps the climax of the list was: Sprinkled shichimi and squirted mayonnaise on an employee’s head while out drinking together. Then began mocking him.
▼ Shichimi is a type of mixed seasoning powder
Every item on this list had been a groundless accusation or misinterpretation of the truth as far as Tanaka was concerned, but he couldn’t believe someone would mistake this instance as power harassment. “I did that as a preventative measure for sexual harassment. That man was drunk and trying to touch his female coworker’s breasts. I put the condiments on his head to diffuse the situation and didn’t ridicule him too much.”
After the full list of grievances were gone through, Tanaka submitted the handwritten responses to the three men. However, as if they heard nothing he said, one official informed him, “the victims’ testimonies prove this is power harassment.”
Completely confused by the meeting, Tanaka returned home. Eight days later he received a phone call from headquarters saying that he wouldn’t need to go into work that day and that, “his presence in the office was determined to be disruptive to the work environment.” The next day he received notice of his termination.
However, convinced that he was unfairly railroaded out of his job, Tanaka is currently suing his company in Osaka District Court, not for any considerable sum of money, but simply to clear his name.
According to Yasuko Okada, who is credited with coining the term “power harassment,” Tanaka’s case is not unusual. Most power harassers are completely unaware of what they are doing. It stands to reason as very few employers, with the exception of perhaps Darth Vader or Skeletor, consciously set out to abuse their own subordinates.
Many are merely emulating the bosses who have come before them from a time when violent outbursts and draconian management were signs of passion and authority over one’s work. Perhaps some power harassers never received the proper guidance on leadership such as the differences between chastising someone or offering them advice.
There are may even be some who have risen through the ranks so quickly that they failed so see how their words (such as “I’ll kill you”) and actions (such as pouring condiments on someone’s head) have a far more menacing tone when coming from a superior rather than a colleague.
There are a lot of potential reasons, but all them seem to indicate that a need for preventative measures inside corporations is more important than simply punishing those culpable of power harassment.