Tokyo, Japan – When Toshiyuki Niino wanted to quit a job he was unhappy at some years ago, he found himself struggling to work up the courage to confront his boss.
After working at several other Japanese workplaces, Niino knew that his decision would face resistance.
“When you try to quit, they give you a guilt trip,” Niino, who lives in Kamakura, a coastal city about 65km south of Tokyo, told Al Jazeera.
“They try to make you ashamed and guilty that you quit your job in less than three years, and I had a very difficult time.”
Niino’s experience gave him and his childhood friend Yuichiro Okazaki an idea: What if you could avoid the ordeal of quitting your job by getting someone else to do it for you?
So began Exit, a startup that handles the awkward business of handing in your notice on behalf of Japanese employees who are too ashamed or embarrassed to do it themselves.
For a fee of 20,000 yen ($144), Exit will contact the client’s employer to inform them of their decision to quit, allowing the employee to avoid any anxiety-inducing confrontations with their superiors.
Since its launch in 2017, Exit’s business model has been adopted by about two dozen other companies, spawning a niche industry of resignation outsourcing in Japan.
Niino said most of his clients are men in their 20s and that his business receives about 10,000 inquiries each year, although not all of those who get in contact ultimately use the service.
“The two major reasons I see are they are scared of their boss so they cannot say that they want to quit, and also the guilty feeling they have for wanting to quit,” he said.
Niino believes the popularity of the service could have something to do with aspects of Japanese culture that discourage disharmony and promote the idea that success requires a long-term commitment.
“It seems like if you quit or you don’t complete it, it’s like a sin,” he said. “It’s like you made some sort of bad mistake.”
Japan, where lifetime employment was the norm for most of the 20th century, has long been known for a punishing work culture that encourages both long hours and lengthy service.
While on a downward trend, the proportion of workers who work more than 60 hours a week – about 6 percent – is among the highest in the OECD.
“Karoshi”, a term coined in the 1970s to describe death from overwork, is officially recognized as 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 change companies less often and rely more on seniority-based pay compared with their counterparts in other countries.
In 2019, the average length of service at a Japanese company was 12.4 years, compared with the OECD average of 10.1 years. Japan also had the third-highest wage premium for working continuously at the same company for at least 20 years, after Turkey and South Korea, according to a 2018 OECD study.
While Exit has tapped into a demand in Japan that was previously uncatered for, not everyone is impressed with the industry it has spawned.
Koji Takahashi, a manager at an engineering company in Tokyo, was so taken aback when he received a call from an agency informing him that a junior employee had quit after a few days on the job that he visited the employee’s parents to confirm the news.
“I gave the parents my business card, introduced myself as the company’s senior manager whose son had newly joined the company, and explained the situation,” Takahashi told Al Jazeera.
“I told them that I would accept the resignation as he wished but would like him to contact me first to confirm his safety.”
Takahashi said the employee’s decision to use a resignation outsourcing agency had negatively affected his impression of his character.
“I thought that if someone cannot resign without using this kind of service, it is their loss and that they are an unfortunate personality who sees work as nothing more than a means to get money.”
Niino said his business has received a frosty reception from some employers, but others have been grateful to get honest feedback about conditions at their workplace.
“They don’t usually say the true reason that they wanted to quit, like for example, they didn’t like the boss,” he said.
“They usually give a weak excuse like they have to leave to take care of the family. But through our service, the person who is quitting their job gives their honest opinion why they want to quit.”
Niino acknowledges that it would be ideal if Japanese people felt more comfortable being their authentic selves, which he believes is difficult in a “closed society” where harmony is paramount.
But until that happens, as far as he is concerned, businesses like his are providing a valuable social service.
“Some of the clients have said they had suicidal thoughts about working for their company but they stopped thinking about that after being helped by us,” Niino said. “I have received a lot of appreciation.”
“Our world is not that easy to fix or change,” he added. “We have been running this company for six years and the number of clients is increasing, so I guess that means nothing has changed. I don’t think it will change for the next 100 years.”
Shiori Suzuki contributed to this article
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA