Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Guys At The Front Gate

Whenever I am tempted to imagine that Japan is not a desolate hell of waste, despair and useless stupidity, I simply picture The Guys At The Front Gate.

By the front gate of the unversity where I work there is a building that functions as a guard house. Inside there are a number of men. When the university is open that number is never less than 2 and usually 4 or 5. Even when the university is closed there is at least one.

There function is to greet visitors and hand out keys. Officially, office keys are kept with them (on a large hook-covered board in the guardhouse), and handed out to academics as they come in in the morning, and taken back at the end of the day. Naturally the system is meaningless as everybody actually has their own copy of their room key (actually a necessity if you share rooms as I do). Nevertheless TGATFG derive immense satisfaction from handing out and taking back in these keys and placing them onto the correct numbered hook.

Apart from that they do nothing. They are dressed in suits and provide an appearance of professionalism (noticeably in contrast with what I know of class content). Oh yeah, they also help with directions. But most of the time they literally do nothing except fight off boredom. They even appear to be too braindead to perve at the pretty students walking by. And even at the busiest times, when somebody is coming into work every five minutes at 8 o'clock in the morning, there is never enough 'work' to occupy more than one of them. I have seen them spy me, 100 meters away, on the other side of the railway tracks waiting for the crossing gates to open; one of them will take my room key off the hook, hand it to his assistant standing 10 centimeters away,who will then pass it to the designated 'key distributor' who is waiting for me. Then they will wait for me to walk up, greet me and hand over the key.

I used to be upset at the waste of time and money this was, that half a dozen middle-aged-men receive full-time employment for doing something so superficial and so unnecessary. For providing a service to visitors that could be more simply provided with a good map. To me it seemed to scream a failed enterprise, a level of institutionalized inefficiency that would make me refuse to send my own children there.

But nowadays it becomes increasingly difficult to care.

So this evening I spent 15 minutes on the web. According to Wikipedia, there are 923 million undernourised people in the world, and every 5 seconds a child dies of hunger. And according to, half a cup of food (two meals) can be provided to a starving person, including transportation and administration costs, for less than 1 cent, by the United Nations World Food Program.
I don't know exactly how much these guys are paid, but the average salary in Japan is 3.7 million yen a year, about 45000 dollars. Even if we assume their salary is significantly less than that, say $35,000, well, with the salary paid to just one of these guys...

You could feed 9589 starving people. Every day.

Just something to think about tomorrow as I greet TGATFG with a sunny 'Good morning'.

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