On the path of a meaningful life

Texts, photographs and videos by Claire B.

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25 March 2016

In the shoes of a TYK worker

Being employed at TYK and experiencing working in a Japanese refractory plant.
TYK, Tajimi, Honshu, Japan © Claire Blumenfeld
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TYK is a factory dedicated to the creation of refractories and technical ceramics, which was created on February 5, 1947 by Mr. Susumu Ushigome. The current president is his son, Mr. Nobutaka Ushigome. The head office is located in Tokyo and the main factory is located in Tajimi. TYK has many factories and offices across Japan and around the world (England, France, Germany, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and the United States). The Tajimi plant is made up of the Ôbata plant, the Research and Development center and the Akasaka plant. The motto of the company is (in English) “Challenging mind, Tenacious spirit, Mature consideration, Speedy action, Chain reaction creativity”.

The Research and Development center where I work is located on a small hill just behind the Ôbata factory. Mainly dedicated to technical ceramics, the center designs and develops small series of new products (therefore top-secret) which will be used for the most part in factories and requiring, for example, very high heat resistance or low thermal conductivity … A dozen team of five / six people each work in the different environments of the center.

For young people working at TYK and not more than 30 years old, the factory recently built a brand new dormitory about ten minutes from the factory and the R&D center. Maintained by Mr. and Mrs. Okamoto, the dormitory, clean and calm, offers small functional studios with private bathroom for the ladies. Gentlemen must go to the public bath on the ground floor. Morning and evening during working days are offered Japanese style breakfast and dinner prepared by Mrs. Okamoto and her daughter.

Every morning, I leave the dormitory around 7.45 am after having had my breakfast to arrive around 7.55 am at the R&D center. Work days start at 8 a.m. and finish at 5 p.m. I change into the women’s locker room and put on my work uniform. For the people at the R&D center, the uniform is a pale green color. For the people at the Ôbata factory, it is blue / gray like mine. For others, it is pale blue in color, etc. Added to this are the reinforced black shoes and the helmet (mainly for people working in warehouses). On helmets are stuck various stickers indicating the ability of the person to, for example, using the overhead crane or driving small trucks. On mine is stuck a green and yellow sticker meaning “intern or newcomer”.

At 8:05 am, it is morning warm-up. Everyone gathers online in front of the main building. A bell rings at the start of the session and music begins, punctuated by the voice of a man stating the exercises and the tempo (“one, two, three, four, and we start again”). For ten minutes, we do several exercises that are supposed to stretch and strengthen team spirit and cohesion. Following that, the group always gathers online and we say out loud the working principles of TYK, followed by a short speech by a different person each morning, on the objectives of the day, the accidents to which they were confronted with or the clients with whom they works. Then each team gathers for a second speech by the team leader and the working day begins.

The R&D center is made up of three main warehouses, a first building dedicated to analyzes and a second building with offices, meeting rooms, dining hall and cloakroom. The whole seems to date from the 90s.

During my stay at TYK, I will go through all the teams of the R&D center. In the photo below, I work for the New Material Team, which, as its name suggests, is developing new ceramic-based products. Using a mortar and pestle, I am mixing for twenty minutes, two compounds to make a mixture, which will then be used by the members of the team to test a new idea. The vast majority of my work is only manual labor.

Some images to introduce you to TYK people at work.

First line :

On the left, Ishimaru-san and Kubo-san of the New Material Team prepare cards containing the name of the product, the number of parts and technical data, for a product inspection the next day. Right, Kawasaki-san from Analysis Team is analyzing the percentage of Silicon Carbide in samples. The Analysis Team is responsible, as its name suggests, for testing and analyzing samples brought in by other teams, by workers of the Ôbata factory or also by companies outside the factory (for a fee).

Second line:

On the left, Satô-san of the New Material Team, is also busy preparing a mixture to test new ideas. Right, Amano-san of New Material Team is cleaning containers after using them.

Third line:

On the left, the almost complete New Material Team (from left to right: Kamiya-san, Kanji-san, Satô-san and Kubo-san) in the middle of testing and thinking about a new product. On the right, in the morning at 10 a.m. and in the afternoon at 2:40 p.m., we are entitled to a ten-minute break. This is an opportunity to drink, eat a little something and relax or chat. In this photo I am in Andô-san room (in the center) of the Sensor Team which manually assembles small ceramic sensors. Kanji-san (right) and I often meet Andô-san for breaks.

Last line:

On the left, Kasami Katô (here with Kanji-san) takes care of the secretariat of the R&D center. Behind and next to her desk are hung the month’s schedules, the day’s tasks and everyone’s schedule. Anyone can consult them. On the right, once a month there is a meeting on the subject of product quality and another meeting on the subject of safety within the factory. Here, the New Material Team and Analysis Team in a quality meeting talking about different projects.

In one of the rooms of the R&D center is a big goldfish in a small aquarium covered with green algae. Purchased several years ago for an experiment, its owner has since moved to a new plant and left it behind. The people at the center feed him a bit randomly, which may explain why he is so fat.

At noon, it is lunch in the refectory. Bentô are prepared by the Ôbata factory canteen and brought daily around 11:30 a.m. Mix of salads, Japanese cucumbers, vegetables, omelets or sweet potatoes, a little meat or fish and sometimes a fruit. Everyone takes their bentô with a bowl of rice and a glass of tea and eats while watching the news on television or chatting with colleagues. Unlike in French canteens, the atmosphere is very calm.

Inside the Ôbata factory is a small shrine dedicated to the kami Ofudou-sama. From what I was told, he is a protective god of warriors, capable of curing illnesses. Every 28th of the month, the morning warm-up does not take place and the TYK people take a few minutes to go and pray at the sanctuary. In the middle of the factory warehouses, the place looks like a little paradise of greenery and serenity.

On the streets along the factory and inside (especially at the R&D center) are several cherry trees. In March, they began to flower, depositing fragile and very beautiful touches of white and pink everywhere. When the weather is good, with the cherry blossoms, the sun in the big yellow grasses covering the hill where the R&D center is located, the clear view of the volcanoes and the song of the birds, the place is very beautiful.

The working atmosphere in the R&D center is relatively calm and relaxed. The pace of work is not hellish (or so I was not confronted with it) and exchanges with the hierarchy are done in a normal way. The workers discuss without any problem with their chiefs, leaders and president. During my stay we had several visits from Susumu Ushigome (former president) and Nobutaka Ushigome (current president) and apart from the more remarkable use of the marks of respect (in behavior and language), the discussion remained fluid.

From what I could observe, the people in the R&D center get along well with each other and the atmosphere between the teams is nice. A lot of exchanges, fun and mutual aid. In the photo on the left, Satô-san (New Material Team) and Takagi-san (Alpha Team).

At 5 p.m., it’s the end of the day. “Otsukaresamadesu” (which could roughly be translated into French as “Bon travail”). Everyone enters their code when they leave (same in the morning when they arrive). Most people leave between 5 p.m. and 5.30 p.m. Some work overtime in the evening, others on weekends. I leave my uniform in my locker, change my shoes and walk quietly to the dormitory. At the end of the afternoon with the setting sun and the pink reflections on the clouds, the return journey is a little moment of absolute calm.

In the evening I dine around 7 p.m. – 8 p.m. in the dormitory refectory. Mrs. Okamoto and her daughter always greet me with a big smile. Salad, fried donuts, rice and Japanese vegetables. Every Friday evening, it is curry rice and fruit for dessert. Half of the young people staying in the dormitory do not eat breakfast or dine in the refectory. So the atmosphere is very calm. Usually only two or three people eat at the same time as me. The meal finished, we clean the table and rinse dishes with water. “Gochisosama deshita” (which could be translated as “Thank you for this very good meal”) and then I go to bed.

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