Here in good old Nippon, where much of the burden of caring for the elderly is placed on sons and daughters, the realities of such dynamics are clearly evident in the workplace. And even though it is seen as an honorable thing to care for one’s family, missing a day of work can easily wipe all that honor away very quickly.
Case in point: A forty-something teacher at my public junior high school, recently took a day off due to a death in her family. Japanese people are not known to pry into your family life, but for someone to take off any time at all is usually a pretty big deal. You would expect the staff and administration to just let things be, let her take some time to cope. But the absent teacher was back at work on Monday. That’s fine, to each their own.
The disturbing part came during the morning meeting, when after the usual daily messages from the vice-principle, the grieving teacher stood, did an overly long deep bow and proceeded to apologize for missing the previous Friday due do the death of her father. It wasn’t a lengthy speech. But I found it pretty unnecessary. Even more concerning was the teacher’s overall demeanor during that morning meeting and the rest of the day. She bowed repeatedly to the principle and vice-principle, continuing to apologize for her absence.
Apologizing – for missing one day of work – to attend the funeral of her father.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this. In fact, I clearly remember another time a teacher was absent, returned, walked the apology plank, and then later distributed omiyage to every staff member as a kind of penance for the burden they put on us by missing that workday unexpectedly. Yes, I have witnessed an employee leave butter cookies on every office desk because they placed the death of an immediate family member above their commitment to the workplace.
Maybe I am being a bit melodramatic. It’s time like these that I revel in my foreignness by actively avoiding such situations. I will continue to do so for as long as I live here.