Bread & Roses: Remote Jobs Upend Work-Life Balance

SNA (Tokyo) — Remote work is no longer a remote concept. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen telework, work-from-home, and workations soar in the popular imagination, and indeed become a reality in many lives. The very meaning of work is undergoing a tectonic transformation before our eyes. So let’s look at telework’s oft-missed underbelly.

Top of any list of terrible Japanese work customs must come long work hours and unpaid overtime.

Below those come mad morning and evening rush hours with train cars packed up to 200% capacity with straphanging workers–sushi-zume (“sushi in a bento box”) or, as anglophones say, “packed like sardines.” The brutality of commutes in urban Japan have inspired commentators to commonly make a pun on the word tsukin (commuting) by replacing it with the phonetically identical, but spelled in kanji differently word tsukin (pain). Most of us have come to resign ourselves to the reality that rush-hour nightmares will never end, and we just have to suck it up.

For my commute, I use the Guinness World Record busiest train station, averaging 3.6 million passengers per day, JR Shinjuku Station. Before the pandemic started, I had to surf the waves of commuters vomited out from train cars from every direction, threading my way through the throngs, painstakingly swerving to avoid collisions with fellow commuters.

Then, the global pandemic fell from the sky like a bomb.

In addition to countless other changes to our lives, my morning rush-hour crush of humanity at Shinjuku disappeared as quickly as hugs and handshakes did in the West. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has since declared four states of emergency. Corporations closed offices to minimize crowds and decreed remote work for all workers doing any job other than those requiring on-site work, such as healthcare, nursing care, childcare, shipping, and construction.

My main job as a university teacher is to teach students in a classroom, but as students began to self-isolate at home, teachers too ended up having little choice but to conduct classes online.

When the new semester started in April 2020, I had no idea what Zoom was and no clue how to teach an online class. I have gotten accustomed to it, though, now in our third year of the new era. By “accustomed,” I mean the technical aspects of teaching online. The switch to online classes engendered a labyrinth of new challenges for me. Naturally, students and teachers are human beings, each with their own views. Some may praise online education and feel quite satisfied, while others, unable to acclimate to online classes, fall deeper and deeper into a sense of isolation and lose all motivation to learn or educate.

I do appreciate the promise of online classes for disabled students who find it hard to move about, for agoraphobes and others with some types of mental disorder. For them, attending uni from home must be a godsend.

But a diverse collection of students coming together in the space that is a university campus to meet, talk, and learn together remains the rock-solid core of education and something impossible to do online.

As a teacher, I am also a worker (rodosha). As a worker, I can say that actual hours spent teaching–partly online and partly in person–seem to have increased by about 80%. My husband sees me working frantically in front of my computer from morning to night, and can attest that I am in no way exaggerating. I must prepare materials to upload to a special student website, speak to students live, clean my bedroom-office, record online classes, and figure out how to adjust the sound and video quality. (Once, a student complained about a video class I recorded late at night because my husband’s obnoxious snoring in the background distracted her.)

I ask students to submit a reaction paper about each online class, which also helps me take attendance, which I am required to do. Immediately after each class, I must read and record the reaction paper for each of hundreds of students.

My university holds a lottery when the number of students hoping to take a particular class exceeds the classroom capacity. Online classes have no classroom capacity limit, making classes up to two hundred students possible. This is good news for students who might lose such a lottery, but it means extra burden placed on the teacher. I now have three times as many students as before the pandemic.

One class ends, and I focus on grading reaction papers and writing comments. Just as I finish that task, I must prepare for the next class. It’s like living on a conveyor belt. In between classes, I am constantly bombarded with other tasks, such as attending teacher conferences, meetings, and invigilating exams. Frankly speaking, I have almost zero time to sit down to do actual research and to write papers.

I’ve spent much of this piece grumbling about my own work situation, but let me make clear that this is not my problem alone.

Teachers teaching at all the nation’s universities are now working under similar circumstances. Teachers in Japan are so busy with non-academic work that some tease us that we have become university teacher salarymen. Even Kyoto University Professor Shinya Yamanaka, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for pioneering induced pluripotent stem cells, is compelled to proctor joint university exams.

Telework, work-from-home, workations, and other remote-work variants are praised for freeing us from corporate clutches, giving us more free time, enabling us to work as we like, and boosting the position of women who cannot commute to their companies. As we go forward, some even call for corporations that reject telework to be left behind.

But we mustn’t be beguiled by this false old-vs.-new dichotomy. We must learn to change the notion that you can work even when you are at home to… I must work even when I am at home!

We must wake up to the invasion of our homes by work, the transformation of our homes into offices, the shifting of the burden of office costs from corporation to worker; in short, we must recognize the fetters and chains attached to the legs of workers just as they are told they are now free. Their workload increases as public perception imagines they now have it easier.

If we want to prevent an increase in the number of deaths from overwork, then we must reduce work hours and manage those hours more strictly than ever before.

This article was written by Hifumi Okunuki, and originally published by the Shingetsu News Agency (SNA).