What’s it like to work at a Japanese TV Production Company based in London? Our undercover contributor spills the beans …
The instructor wore white shorts, a vest and an expression of fierce concentration. “3….2….1….. HAJIME!” he trilled as he started to bounce. Soon the computer monitors were juddering in time with the exercise video.
Working in Japanese TV production wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
After graduation last summer I became a freelounging boyfriend. My girlfriend had moved to Hackney after being offered a job by an auctionhouse, and I was taking advantage of free rent while I trawled for a job in The Media.
I’d set my heart on being a boy reporter ever since reading Tintin as a kid, but this was proving tricky. Most prospective employers seemed less than impressed by my above-average Karate skills and comic book trivia. And creative jobs are famously elusive.
Plenty of magazines and newspapers were happy to offer me work experience, but most of them were unpaid, or miserly. Timeout offered me a £2 a day placement, which was upsetting, as most of the fun that can be had for £2 in this city revolves around cut price solvents.
On a typically aimless day I found myself in the Hackney Jobcentre killing time on the job search machines, trying not to think about my dwindling bank balance. I typed in ‘Japanese’ in the hope that my self indulgent degree choice (Italian and Japanese) might finally be of use.
To my surprise I found a position as a researcher for a TV production company. I got called for an interview and given the job. Then ensued the strangest four months of my life.
“We’re making a programme about English ghosthunters. Can you find us a list of paranormal investigators to interview?”
“We’re working on a show about Princess Victoria of Sweden and her relationship with her personal trainer. Could you tell us what effect his renal failure had on their relationship?”
“We want to use this Youtube video. The footage comes from an Icelandic programme that was made by a Swedish producer who sold the rights to an American channel that ceased to exist in 1981… I think his name was Erik.”
The setup took a while to comprehend. At the top was the boss and original founder. He started the company in Tokyo during Japan’s economic boom, and went to great lengths to explain that the death of intelligent journalism had coincided with his own partial retirement. This was the same man who had managed to set his bin on fire repeatedly.
Studios had vast budgets back in the eighties. Sakamoto thought nothing of paying his employees investment-banker sized salaries, and even lending them company cars.
But the recession tore into profits. Budgets dried up and studios had less money to spend on research and coordination. Sakamoto lost focus and was forced to entrust the daily running of the company to a young apprentice.
She devoted herself to rebuilding the company and repairing the bridges that Sakamoto had burnt.
He was banished to his office and given a purely ceremonial role; a chain-smoking emperor who lives in terror of China’s economic growth. Every now and then he would leave the office to explain that the Nanking massacre was merely Chinese propaganda.
The company was broadly divided into two types of employees: researchers and coordinators. Researchers found footage, filming locations, and haggled over copyright.
The stranger requests – such as searching for photographs of real ghosts, or trying to understand the legal jargon surrounding the court case of Princess Margaret’s supposed illegitimate son – stretched the limits of Google to breaking point.
But it is the coordinators who were the true inefficient heroes of the operation. Their job was to write regular reports to Japan. They were brave, good at thinking on their feet, and talented at lying to cover the mistakes of the more incompetent researchers. At times they would exist purely as human shock absorbers that protected people like myself.
After a few months being shouted at by bosses whose tyrannical behavior made Godzilla seem like a misunderstood household pet, I got curious enough to email my predecessor to ask him about his reasons for leaving.
He explained that he had been very unhappy. The managers “calling me and most other staff stupid every day” eventually became too much for him. He handed in his notice, but agreed to stay till the end of the project he was working on.
But worse was to come. “During a morning meeting, she (Sakamoto’s apprentice) just suddenly blew her head off at me and just kept yelling: “Idiot! Idiot! Urusai! Shut up, just shut up!” I tried to reason with her, but she just kept yelling.”
This sounded horribly familiar. But, worse was yet to come, in the form of Sakamoto’s response.
“He accused me of several things, including being a liar, that I had never wanted to work there in the first place, that I wasn’t fit to work in the media industry and that I wasn’t a man. He said he had no respect for me. Then at the end he said if he was any younger, he’d punch me.” After that my predecessor packed up his desk and left.
I decided to follow his lead. It wasn’t just the late nights, unpaid overtime, or the tirades of abuse. The sleazy culture of entertainment TV simply wasn’t for me. My colleagues were intelligent, kind and capable, but it upset me to watch them being ground down by the autocratic management. And I resented the way that people who dared to pitch ideas would be automatically shot down.
As I skipped out of Studio Sakamoto for the last time, it struck me that even if I hadn’t managed to make it big in Japan, at least my aerobics had improved.
Some names have been changed