Japan is filled with workers who do almost nothing.
You probably haven’t needed a crossing guard to help you across the street since you were five years old, but you can find crossing guards on quiet streets far away from schools and playgrounds here. Operating an ATM should be the simplest thing in the world, but almost every bank has a “lobby lady” to help you with your transaction and in case you find the task of pushing an elevator button too overwhelming, there are elevator girls in a lot of the big department stores. Flag men do, of course, play an important role in directing traffic around construction sites on busy roads, but do drivers on back streets really need three or four old men to direct them, when there are already 5000 pylons around the site?

The reason for all the useless people is that these jobs are giving retired people with small pensions a way to earn some extra money, and, depending on how you look at it, the dignity of having a job (even if it is a useless one). It also keeps the unemployment rate down.

Click here for an excellent Time article about the myth of Japanese productivity.


Crossing Guards

Useless People 1

In the city of Himeji one Sunday afternoon, there were a pair of old men directing traffic at every street corner in the downtown area. I had to wait about two minutes for a car to come by so that I could get an “action shot”.

Crossing Guards at Traffic Lights

Useless People 2
This guy is directing traffic even though there is a working traffic light right behind him. They actually inconvenience people by preventing them from crossing when there are no cars coming.


Elevator Girls

Elevator Girl

Did you know that an elevator girl bows an average of 2500 times a day?

Arrow Fetchers

Arrow Fetchers

At a Kyuudo exhibition these women sat patiently behind the male archers, helping them to pull their kimono off their shoulders before they made their shots, and fetching their arrows.
Come on guys. Pick up your own arrows!

Museum Ladies

Museum Lady
Go to any museum in Japan, and you will see an elegant looking lady sitting in one corner of almost every room. They don’t do anything, they don’t say anything, and they don’t seem to know anything about, or be particularly interested in, the art around them. These human scarecrows just sit their calmly for hours and hours without moving, their laps covered by a little blanket.

Election Wavers

Election Wavers

These useless people are also some of the most annoying in Japan. During elections you are sure to be the victim of an audio assault as campaign vans cruise through the neighborhoods pumping out political rhetoric at volumes that leave you with ringing ears and the feeling of having been physically attacked. The vans are filled with volunteers who lean out the windows waving at anyone who catches their eye, like bored kids on a long car trip. When they drive by you, cover your ears with your hands and look angry to show them how annoying they are being. Haven’t they ever heard of lawn signs?

Real Estate Agents

Japanese Real Estate Agent
The Japanese real estate agent is the king of useless middlemen. If you want to make some easy money, just become a real estate agent and you will be entitled to one month’s rent (any where from US$500 to $2000) from your customers for doing nothing more than showing them a few housing plans and then, if you’re really on the ball, maybe driving them to take a look at the apartment (but usually just giving them a key and telling them to go look for themselves).

It is very difficult to find accommodation in Japan without going through a real estate agency, causing something that should be as easy as looking through the classified ads or walking around looking for ‘For Rent’ signs to become a long, involved, and ridiculously expensive process. Even if you contact a building owner directly, you generally have to pay the real estate agent’s fee.

If you simply must go through a real estate agent, be careful of the free magazines that you see in all the major shopping districts and near big stations. They are filled with great looking apartments at too-good-to-be-true prices. And they are too good to be true. They are never available when you call, but the agency always has a similar one that’s just “a little more expensive”. If you are interested in finding alternative, long-term accommodation in Japan, click here.


Watch Your Head Sign

This is not a useless person, but it was obviously thought up by one.

99% of Electronics Store Workers

You always hear about how good the service is in Japan, and in some ways its true. Employees are unfailingly polite, come running when you call, routinely go the extra-mile to help customers, and will give you the deepest, most respectful bows you have ever seen in your life.

If however, you define service as being knowledgeable about the products they sell, or as being capable of making sure that a customer goes home with the merchandise that is right for him or her, then you may be disappointed.

Electronics store workers in particular are notorious for their lack of knowledge about the products they sell. At the famous discount electronics retailer, Yodobashi Camera, for example, you will find people in the computer department who have never used any of the software they are selling, do not own their own computer, and cannot answer simple questions without calling in two or three other employees who inevitably have no more idea than the first one did and usually end up calling in the manager or telephoning the product’s manufacturer.

Construction Equipment Depot Guards

A close relative to the crossing guards, these guys are a real treat to watch “in action.” Construction crews generally leave with their equipment in the morning, and return in the evening. So what exactly does a pensioner wearing a powder blue jumpsuit and fancy multicolored helmet reminiscent of “Buck Rogers” or “Kamen Rider” have to do in the interim? Sit upright in a foldable deck chair placed at the entrance to the storage lot, under the guise of being the guy who directs equipment on and off the road in a full-time capacity. And wait around for 7 and a half hours until the crew comes back at quitting time.
Kindly submitted by J. Thorne.

University Gate Guards

These are the guys that wave to important school dignitaries, and give directions to the 2 or 3 people a day who ask them. They stay on in the guard shack until the wee hours, presumably just in case the faculty has an unannounced emergency planning meeting at 10:30 PM in the library, and the gate needs to be open.
Kindly Submitted by J. Thorne.

Door to Door Mop Head Salesmen

I’m staying with my wife’s family in Nagano prefecture and I’ve been reminded of a perfectly useless job in Japan: door-to-door mop head replacers. Here in the Japan Alps it’s pretty inaka (country side)… total hick town. They have a cool koi (carp) pond but no flush toilets. I was just using the phone in the hallway and some man came and announced himself. He was giving a mop head replacement to her grandmother who had ordered one. Why hasn’t the fact that people can buy these mop heads easily at any store made this useless job a thing of the past? Truly a useless person.
Kindly submitted by G. Bower

Mobile Laundry Pole Salesman

I’d like to nominate those people that drive around every Sunday in their vans, blaring their megaphones, selling laundry poles. How often do people really need to buy a new laundry pole? I think once every 5 years would be sufficient, but these people somehow feel the need to drive by at 8 in the morning EVERY Sunday in my neighborhood.
Kindly submitted by M. Louie

Editor’s note: this post was originally published in 2004 and has been updated.