Gearoid Reidy

A Japanese Philosophy for the Quiet-Quitting Generation

The world of management is abuzz about the idea of “quiet quitting” — the Gen Z, TikTok-boosted term for doing nothing more at work than the job description demands.

Of course, there’s nothing new about this phenomenon — if Gen Z knew how to dial a call, they would understand the age-old concept of “phoning it in.” The inability to inspire worker buy-in has been a challenge for organizations for decades.

One man who dedicated his life to solving this puzzle was Kazuo Inamori, one of the giants of postwar Japanese industry, who died last month at the age of 90. He founded electronics maker Kyocera Corp. and what would later become KDDI Corp. — currently Japan’s 48th and fifth biggest companies by market value — and was utterly obsessed with improving management, boosting engagement and making workers happier.

For Inamori, working was living. For quiet quitters looking to spend more time on recreation, he warned that such pleasure is fleeting.

“The thing that humans truly derive pleasure from is found within work,” Inamori, who was also an ordained Buddhist monk, once wrote. “You might find temporary enjoyment in neglecting your work and enjoying hobbies or having fun, but it won’t be the type of pleasure that wells up from the bottom of your heart. There is no greater pleasure in life than that which comes from working hard and earnestly, overcoming hardship and suffering and building something.”

In his later years, he spent much of his time sharing what he learned. More than his considerable business achievements, which include taking on the one-time state monopoly of Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. to build Japan’s No. 2 mobile carrier, he became known for his management credo. Kyocera’s website lists 46 books he wrote or co-authored, mostly on the subject of management or philosophy. Thousands of students flocked to his Seiwajyuku school of management, from SoftBank Group Corp. founder Masayoshi Son to Hakuho, the most decorated sumo wrestler in history.

What links them was the commitment to success that Inamori demanded. He was famed for calling on workers to produce “not your best, but perfection.”

To Gen Z quiet quitters, that might sound similar to the hustle culture they’re trying to escape from. But Inamori’s difference is that he was no slave driver: He understood the importance of having both management and employees on the same team. “If you want eggs,” he said in a 2015 interview with Bloomberg, “take care of the hen.”

Inamori was perhaps most famous for this promotion of “amoeba management,” which sought to enthuse workers by letting them operate as independently as possible. For him, it all came down to getting workers involved.

While “employee engagement” probably wasn’t a phrase when Inamori was setting up Kyocera in the 1950s, he understood the paramount need to have worker buy-in. He promoted radical transparency of company results with workers, and initially wanted to make Kyocera something more akin to a legal or accounting partnership, where workers would also be part owners.

With a Gallup survey showing disengaged or quiet-quitting workers may make up fully half of the US workforce, a trend amplified in younger millennials and Gen Z workers who complain that they lack support, development and opportunities to grow, some of Inamori’s writing now reads as a prescient warning.

“Management must not seek to satisfy only their own desires,” Inamori said. “They must think of the happiness of every single employee.”

In Western profit-driven, shareholder-first companies, the compact between management and workers has long since broken down. Chief executive pay is up 1,300% since 1978, and is now 351 times higher than a typical worker, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Disengagement seems a natural consequence.

Inamori promoted viewing workers as more than replaceable tools that can be tempted with workplace beanbags and baristas, and then discarded when they have outlived their usefulness. Management must work as hard as employees do, if not harder, he said, and the CEO must work harder than anyone. Management must be in the trenches, just as he frequently was, sleeping on the factory floor.

For Inamori, this was more than just lip service. He fought to protect jobs, resisting restructuring at Kyocera when it was hit by the oil crisis-triggered drop in demand in the 1970s. Instead, he put employees to work trimming weeds and cleaning mud out of ditches on factory grounds.

He also insisted that shareholders should not be prioritized above workers. Yet Inamori was committed to brutal cost-cutting and prioritized profit-making. Little wonder he was tapped to lead the turnaround at Japan Airlines Co. when it went into bankruptcy proceedings, shedding costs and, yes, jobs and relisting the troubled airline in record time in 2012.

As the West shifts focus away from a slavish devotion to shareholders to a more inclusive business philosophy, Inamori may in time come to be seen as an early advocate of stakeholder capitalism — a philosophy that has deep roots in Japanese business culture. It’s also one that’s making an attempted comeback with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s policy of “New Capitalism.”

And while Inamori did not actively prioritize shareholders, they can have few complaints: KDDI has more than doubled its net income in the last decade to $4.7 billion last year, while also doubling its profit margin and its dividend payout ratio — even as the mobile carrier industry and its fat profits became the object of political ire. Kyocera may no longer be a household name, but has also never posted a loss in its more than 60-year history.

Perhaps in an era of rising living costs, that’s one reason the quiet (and not-so-quiet) quitters should bear one final word of advice. “Instead of looking for the job you love,” Inamori said, “love the job that is given to you.”