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Embarrassed workers pay agencies to resign for them in Japan | Business & Economics

Tokyo, Japan – A few years ago, when Toshiyuki Shinno wanted to quit a job that made him unhappy, he found it difficult to muster up the courage to confront his boss.

After working at several other Japanese workplaces, Niino knew there would be resistance to his decision.

“They make you feel guilty when you try to quit,” Niino, who lives in Kamakura, a coastal city about 65 kilometers south of Tokyo, told Al Jazeera.

“They’re trying to make you feel ashamed and guilty because you quit in less than three years and I had a really tough time.”

Shinno’s experience gave him and his childhood friend Yuichiro Okazaki an idea: What if you could avoid the ordeal of quitting your job by having someone else do it for you?

So began Exit, a start-up that takes care of the awkward business of filing notices on behalf of Japanese employees who are too shy or too embarrassed to do it themselves.

For a fee of 20,000 yen ($144), Exit will contact a client’s employer to inform them of their decision to resign, allowing employees to avoid any anxiety-inducing confrontations with their bosses.

Since its launch in 2017, Exit’s business model has been adopted by about two dozen other companies, spawning a niche industry of exit outsourcing in Japan.

Toshiyuki Niino (right) and Yuichiro Okazaki founded Exit in 2017 after watching Japanese people agonize over resignation [Toshiyuki Niino]

Most of his clients are men in their 20s, Niino said, and his company receives about 10,000 inquiries a year, but not everyone who comes in contact ends up using the service.

“The two main reasons I see are they are afraid of their boss so they can’t say they want to quit, and they feel guilty about wanting to quit,” he said.

Niino thinks the service’s popularity may have something to do with Japanese culture’s notion that it encourages discord and promotes the long-term commitment required to succeed.

“It seemed like if you quit or didn’t finish it, it was like a sin,” he said. “It’s like you’ve made some kind of serious mistake.”

For most of the 20th century, lifetime employment was the norm in Japan, which has long been known for a punishing work culture that encouraged long hours and long service.

Although declining, the proportion of workers working more than 60 hours per week (around 6%) is among the highest in the OECD.

“Karoshi” is a term coined in the 1970s to describe death from overwork, which is officially considered the cause of hundreds of deaths from cardiovascular disease and suicide each year.

While Japan’s traditional system of lifetime employment has weakened in recent decades, Japanese workers still switch companies less frequently and rely more on seniority-based wages than their counterparts in other countries.

In 2019, the average length of service of Japanese companies was 12.4 years, while the OECD average was 10.1 years. According to a 2018 OECD study, Japan has the third highest wage premium for working at the same company for at least 20 years, behind Turkey and South Korea.

While Exit tapped a previously unmet need in Japan, not everyone was impressed with the industry it spawned.

When Koji Takahashi, a manager at an engineering firm in Tokyo, received a call from an agency informing him that a junior employee was taken aback when he left after a few days on the job, he visited the employee’s parents to confirm the news.

“I gave my parents my business card, introduced myself as a senior manager of the company, whose son had just joined the company, and explained the situation,” Takahashi told Al Jazeera.

“I told them I would accept the resignation as he wished, but wanted him to contact me first to confirm his safety.”

Takahashi said the employee’s decision to use an outsourcing agency had negatively impacted his image of character.

“I think it’s at their own loss if someone can’t quit their job without using this service, they’re an unfortunate person who sees work as nothing more than a means of making money.”

Startup Exit charges 20,000 yen to resign on behalf of the client [Toshiyuki Niino]]

Niino said his company has received a cold reception from some employers, but others appreciate honest feedback about workplace conditions.

“They often don’t say the real reason why they want to quit, for example, they don’t like their boss,” he said.

“They usually give a weak excuse, like they have to leave to take care of family. But through our service, people who quit can be honest about why they want to quit.”

Niino concedes that it would be ideal if the Japanese were more comfortable being their true selves, which he says is hard to do in a “closed society” where harmony is paramount.

But until then, for him, businesses like his are providing a valuable social service.

“Some clients have stated that they have had suicidal thoughts working for the company, but after receiving our help, they no longer have such thoughts,” Niino said. “I got a lot of compliments.”

“Our world is not that easy to fix or change,” he added. “We’ve been running the business for six years and the number of clients is growing, so I guess that means nothing has changed. I don’t think it’s going to change for the next 100 years.”

Shiori Suzuki contributed to this article

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