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Konami's draconian workplace raises no eyebrows in Japan

Japanese publishers and studios routinely treat staff badly; if they hope to hold on to talent this attitude must change

When the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's largest business newspaper (and as of last week, owners of the Financial Times) published an in-depth piece alleging that Konami's work environment is both tyrannical and abusive, reactions were sharply divided. While some defended the company's policies (or at least their spirit, while admitting that some of the workplace practices described cross the line), many commentators in the West sought to tie up these revelations to the ongoing narrative of what's happening at Konami - the shutting of Kojima Productions and seemingly acrimonious departure of Hideo Kojima being the latest in a series of high-profile brain drains from the publisher as it transitions away from console and towards mobile.

I have a problem with that narrative; it's too pat, too simple, and altogether too ignorant of the broader context in which Konami's work practices exist. There's absolutely no reason why a company which makes mobile games should be a more unpleasant, draconian or creatively bankrupt work environment than one which makes console games; indeed, there are plenty of mobile game companies which are wonderful places to work, and plenty of console studios which are soul-crushing and awful. The conditions described at Konami are the result of an entirely different set of management decisions to the transition to mobile, and most likely existed long before that transition began. Working in that environment probably meant that creators like Kojima (and the legions of talented developers who have left Konami in recent years) heaved a sigh of relief as the door eventually slammed behind them, but it wasn't their core reason for departure.

"It's not uncommon for salaried staff at Japanese companies to work... until very late at night almost every day, as well as devoting most of their weekends to their jobs"

Moreover, these conditions are not all that unusual - as a handful of commentators with experience of working in the Japanese games industry pointed out, and the altogether more muted reaction to the article within Japan itself made clear. Some of what is described at Konami is extreme, but not very much more extreme than the treatment routinely meted out to developers in Japanese workplaces, whose work practices and staff policies are routinely terrible; worse even than the western industry in the good old, bad old days prior to the EA Spouse debacle and the slowly dawning realisation that perhaps work-life balance might help to stop burning out talented staff quite so fast.

You recall the EA Spouse, right? It was a blog post by game designer Erin Hoffmann back in 2004 which criticised the conditions in which her fiancé was being forced to work at EA and which dragged a whole set of extremely dodgy labour practices (and simply bad, incompetent project management) out into the glare of public attention, where it transpired that all of these things which the industry had just accepted as "oh, that's how things are" actually needed to be changed and fixed. It was a turning point; it hasn't fixed everything about the industry's labour practices, but it was followed by some pretty major changes, especially at large publishers and studios, which have turned videogame companies into much better places to work today than they were back at the turn of the millennium. EA, the target of the original blog post, is now routinely voted as one of the best companies in America to work for, which is a pretty impressive turnaround.

Having taken on board the reminder that the games industry has workplace problems everywhere and that even its biggest and best companies have only in the past decade started cleaning up their act with regard to egregious abuses of staff, let's circle back around to consider the specific case of Japan. Japanese workplaces in general have a pretty well-deserved reputation for demanding extremely long hours from staff; it's not uncommon for salaried staff at Japanese companies to work (or engage in work-related extra-curricular activities such as drinking with clients and colleagues) until very late at night almost every day, as well as devoting most of their weekends to their jobs. Such routinely lengthy working hours are not a consequence of necessity; the productivity of an average Japanese worker is no higher, and in fact often lower, than that of a worker in any other developed nation with a much shorter average working week. Rather it is a consequence of a corporate culture in which the sacrifice of work-life balance, in the form of staying extremely long hours in the office, is seen as a sign of company loyalty and generally essential to promotion hopes.

Now consider what happens when you drop a game development studio, an industry which already has a reputation for long hours, overtime and poor scheduling everywhere in the world, into a national work culture like that. Worse; consider what happens when you combine those elements with a traditional workplace culture that focuses on promotion through seniority (and "loyalty") rather than on rewarding innovation, technical skill or quality of work, as many more traditional Japanese employers do. This results, inevitably, in a factory floor mentality which views workers as effectively interchangeable; if they are not sufficiently loyal or cause "trouble" in some way, they can easily be swapped out for another worker. It's the antithesis of how well-managed creative businesses treat their staff, and while it would be utterly unfair to imply that all Japanese firms act this way (there are many great exceptions to the rule), it's certainly commonplace at larger companies.

That's why reaction to the Konami story was muted in Japan; because anyone who's engaged with the industry in Japan has heard all of this before. Hell, we've heard worse - the company with yakuza ties (this doesn't narrow it down very much, incidentally; many of Japan's videogame publishers have financial ties to organised crime due to their involvement with pachinko) which hired thuggish construction foremen as "producers" on a behind-schedule game, who physically abused and intimidated development staff to try to force them back on schedule; the world-famous publisher whose Japanese development studio pays far below the industry average, enforces horrendous contract clauses and tends to burn through staff in less than 18 months, on the basis that it can easily recruit new eager-eyed staff from the ranks of fans of its famous franchises. Asking staff to clock in and out to go to the bathroom is just another item to add to the bottom of the list of reasons why Japanese games companies are, in general, terrible employers.

Again, this is absolutely a generalisation and there are good companies out there - but oddly, they're rarely the famous ones, which means that when talented foreign development staff decide to pursue their dream of working for a Japanese company, or working on a beloved franchise, they often find themselves at the mercy of a very abusive employer. It's also worth pointing out that some staff are fine with this kind of treatment; they see no problem with devoting their entire lives to work, to the exclusion of social or family time, and bristle at the suggestion that employers who demand this are abusive. The difference, of course, is between being given a choice to focus intensely on your work, and being forced to do so; one is flexibility, the other abuse.

"With policies like those being pursued by Konami and its ilk, Japanese publishers risk turning the trickle of brain drain of local talent into a raging torrent. This is an industry in desperate need of an 'EA Spouse moment'"

Why raise this issue now? A few reasons. Firstly, I wanted to put the Konami story in context - the conditions described therein are bad, but they're barely an outlier in the context of the broader Japanese industry, and using the Nikkei report as a further reason to bash Konami in particular (rather than as a jumping-off point for a broader consideration of employment issues in the Japanese industry) seems unfair. Secondly, I think it's important to air these issues simply because there are so many developers, artists, coders, creators, designers and other talented young people in the games industry who have stars in their eyes and dreams of moving to Japan to work - and that's a dream I've seen turn into a nightmare often enough to wish to raise a flag of warning.

Finally, though, I think the Japanese industry's abysmal labour practices and workplace policies need discussion for the sake of that industry itself. Almost every senior staff member at every large Japanese developer I talk to sings from the same hymn sheet; they'd love to hire more foreigners, they feel like Japanese development has become isolated from the broader exchange of technical skills and know-how which developers overseas use to advance their art, they think they'd benefit from a wider range of cultural inputs and contexts in their creative processes. Yet it's a pipe-dream, for the simple reason that most of these companies are so utterly unappealing to work for that the only foreigners who'll stick it out are those who are already so embedded within and in thrall to Japanese culture that their cultural perspectives are next to worthless. Moses will not come to this mountain; talented foreign staff will not work for Japanese companies who underpay them, ignore the idea of work-life balance and treat them as disposable. The mountain, rather, must come to Moses; the companies must make themselves into appealing workplaces if they are ever to achieve the diversity and growth which their bosses talk about so airily.

Indeed, the threat may be even more close to home; even talented Japanese developers no longer need to work for Japanese companies, not necessarily. Many of those who left large, unpleasant Japanese workplaces in the past decade found themselves in the USA or Europe; many more have ended up starting or participating in small studios working on mobile or indie titles. Never mind attracting foreign talent; with policies like those being pursued by Konami and its ilk, Japanese publishers risk turning the trickle of brain drain of local talent into a raging torrent. This is an industry in desperate need of an "EA Spouse moment"; if the Nikkei's condemnation of Konami's practices can start to set that change in motion, it could be the salvation of Japanese AAA game development in the long term.

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Latest comments (12)

Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany6 years ago
"It's not uncommon for salaried staff at Japanese companies to work... until very late at night almost every day, as well as devoting most of their weekends to their jobs"
If they actually see that as a common practice, then there is a problem in how things are managed there. Sure here in the west we do overtime sometimes, (I'll put my current company as example) but Working until late in the night and then come on weekend is VERY FAR from "something expected" and closer to "An scenario we absolutely want to avoid for the sake of our employee's quality of life" (and sanity)
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Payton Liu Production Support Analyst, IBM China6 years ago
Thanks for bring this topic for wider discussion, good read. It all comes down to a culture thing - the East Asian culture.

From what I've read, game industry is just one little part among others. The work environment is generally bad (long hours, hush treatments, no work-life balance, etc.) for the whole ACG (Animation, Comics and Game) industries in Japan; for other industries, I think Toyota is a perfect example, who created the LEAN mode (the general idea is: workers can be interchangeable parts to save cost and increase efficiency). When you look at China and South Korea, same story. As you explained in the article, long working hours + over time + no private life = hard worker + loyalty. This formula essentially is everywhere in China, though western companies tend to avoid it largely.

So for the equivalent "EA Spouse" kind of change to happen here, East Asian people have to accept that soul crushing work environment is bad for business. I personally don't see that's going to appear any time soon, but one can always hope. :-)
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development6 years ago
In this day and age where it's easy to produce and publish games independently there really is little need to need to subject oneself to this type of treatment.

That will be the only way they'll stop those practices.
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Show all comments (12)
Brendan Sinclair Managing Editor, GamesIndustry.biz6 years ago
How messed up is it to have to sacrifice and show loyalty to an employer who views you as disposable and interchangeable?
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Yannick Boucher Development Director, 2K China6 years ago
I was gonna say, just before Michael posted, this goes WAY beyond the simple boundaries of the game industry, as far as working in Japan is concerned.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 6 years ago
I usually get yelled at when I talk about things like Japanese isolation, the low pay, and bad conditions is a big part of what's killing companies like Nintendo. It used to be you traded for security. You bust your ass in HS, get into the right school, and thirty years later retire on a good pension.

The removal of these guarantees is causing a gigantic upheaval in Japan across all industries. I personally know people who literally had to run from debuting their well-charting debut pop single from a major label or management company they are under contract to to their waitressing job. Game designers, voice actors carrying starring roles in major franchises, you name it. But Japan is a society that respects tradition, elders and hierarchy to the death sometimes (this is the root of Nintendo's slow death spiral). Forget Yakuza overseers, the real challenge is to enact worker protections, unions, and a host of other things that westerners take for granted. If a company betrays the public trust, and say, provides inferior trash pickup to a municipality, the company goes down, but most don't care how they got there.

Westerners know last names like "shoemaker", but virtually every Japanese last name is that, and even having a first name is very much a product of the last 150 years. It took the end of WW2 for the regular people to gain any power, and I suspect there is another upheaval on the way, but like Japan's continued whaling operations, the elders and the powerful are more concerned with the status quo than with accepting reality. Hardly unique to Japan, but engrained at al levels like few other nations to a degree that few westerners can really picture without shoving your head directly in it.

The first western company that goes to Japan and creates a western style dev environment to magnet up the young talent and train them might have something very interesting on their hands. Western games are finally getting decent distribution over there, and it's going to be very interesting how that changes developers. I suspect a lot of our familiar names will be merging, dying, or becoming irrelevant in the next ten years because modern games are too expensive, and they're too far behind.

I love Japan, I love the unique visions and favors they bring to all manners of creative endeavors, and I wish they were unshackled to do their thing. There are companies and good people out there trying to change things, and I pray they succeed faster than history proves likely.
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Gary LaRochelle Digital Artist / UI/UX Designer / Game Designer, Flea Ranch Games6 years ago
I once worked for a company (non-gaming in USA) that was bought by a Japanese family. They expected the salary workers to be there all of the time: after hours and weekends. Even if there was no work to do. The hourly workers could not put in one second of over time. The thinking of the Japanese owners was that when you get the salary workers to put in the extra time, it was free labor. It also showed that they owned you.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 6 years ago
How messed up is it to have to sacrifice and show loyalty to an employer who views you as disposable and interchangeable?
That's pretty much the definition of a temp worker, something I'll had the non-pleasure of doing for several years back when permanent work wasn't so easy to find. And that's not a Japanese or Eastern thing, it's a world wide thing. But putting it into perspective it would be several times worse if you were a salaried or permanent employee and were treated the same way as temp workers are.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 8th August 2015 1:47am

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Alex Barnfield Lead Engineer, 17-BIT6 years ago
I think work ethic and long hours are synonymous in Japan, regardless of the amount of time spent idle (and infact the expectation of long hours can encourage low productivity), the monitoring of lunch breaks etc all fall down to this lack of distinction between hours and productivity. I can't see an EA spouse type event changing anything as the root of the problem wouldn't be understood.

Jeff - most of the issues you mentioned are long standing (and I don't believe large companies tend to offer poor salaries). I think any decline is a side issue to what's going on at Konami. My guess would be its more likely due to the increasing scale of games. A strict hierarchy with ideas expected to come from a single person at the top can lead to superb, well focused small titles, but is less well suited to titles of the complexity we see today.
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Chella Ramanan European Correspondent, Game Industry News6 years ago
Brilliant article. Well said. I have to say, knowing Japan's work culture, my eyebrow wasn't raised at the Konami news. I didn't follow the dialogue though, so assumed people would realise it's a Japan issue, rather than a specifically Konami issue. You have adjusted the focus, which is great.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 6 years ago
Alex, I absolutely agree

The lack of guaranteed stability is more what I'm trying to describe. Removing "keep your head down, do your job, and we'll take care of you" makes a lot of people far less willing to put up with this stuff :)
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 6 years ago
Back when I worked for DoCoMo (Not actually a games company, admittedly, a Japanese telco) years and years ago, the working culture was very much the exact opposite of this. Company policy enforced such nice treatment of employees that it was difficult to actually get any work done!

Feeling sick? Go home before you infect everyone. Can't take the day off? Then come back in the evening when there's less people around to infect.

We're painting the company offices this week so dump your children on us and our fleet of registered child minders, and they can fingerpaint on the walls while you get some alone time with your partner.

Come to a picnic! Come on a boat trip! Watch this entertaining cartoon we're thinking of running as an ad campaign. Have lunch. Come to the Dragon Dance for Chinese New Year!

Company masseur. Company doctor. Company dry-cleaning. Everything you needed to perform optimally, they provided.

And the wages were... so lovely. They were enough to pay for what you needed to pay for. I wasn't rich but I didn't need to worry about anything.

The end result was pretty visible. We all loved working there so much that we worked to help the company the same way we would look to help a friend who we really owed one. Nobody hesitated or even had to be asked to put in extra hours when needed. And not just urgently needed. If something good needed an extra four hours to make it just that bit more perfect, it would get done. And we were glad to do it.

Had the Age of Zaibatsus come there and then and we'd had to go to war with some other telco, we'd all have volunteered for cybernetic augmentation and signed up for the company army on the spot.

So while I knew that harsh (to us westerners) company practices had been commonplace in Asian companies in the past, I never realized that they were still around. Maybe they were just unique as a company. I really hope that those working practices were as beneficial to the company as they looked at the time, though. I want to believe that loyalty through love works out better than loyalty through tradition.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bonnie Patterson on 10th August 2015 5:33pm

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