One of the funniest things I've ever read was written by the United States Department of Homeland Security. Not usually known for their comedy, I know.
This chestnut came on the final page of some otherwise boring paperwork that had something to do with my wife's green card. All the important green card stuff had been filled in, signed and dated, so I didn't know what could be left for that last, extra, superfluous page.
It turned out to be a short paragraph on a mostly white page with a heading that read: "Paperwork Reduction Act."
I might have been slaphappy from hours in front of government-ese, but that struck me as funny. "Here's an extra sheet of paper about our compliance in reducing your paperwork." I've held onto that page for seven years now, and I pull it out whenever I forget what "irony" means.
But please don't get the impression that I'm one of those anti-Paperwork-Reduction-Act people. It's probably one of my all-time Top 5 Acts. The Paperwork Reduction Act is our guarantee, feeble as it may seem sometimes, that the US government won't bury us under totally frivolous paperwork. If anything, I support an expansion of the Paperwork Reduction Act.
It's just such a bad look to explain the thing on an additional sheet of paper. It's like holding a "Stop All These Protests" rally. It's like shooting somebody with a Relay for Life starter pistol. It's like a dating app called Amish Mingle. It's like ... Well, you get the picture.
But fear not United States. You're not the only country that dabbles in ironic paperwork. Japan is making sure you're not alone in this.
First, a little background info.
Japan has long had a problem with people working too much overtime. There are complex societal pressures that keep people in the office until all hours, and generally, it's impossible to say "no" to a boss. Extreme overtime is a legitimate health concern, and in the last few years many have called for an end to the mandatory overtime culture here.
The Japanese government, for its part, has revised its labor laws twice in the last two years to cap the amount of overtime people can legally work. The government also launched a campaign called "Premium Friday" in 2017 in which companies are encouraged to let their employees go home at 3 p.m. on the last Friday of the month. (I, for one, have never needed a government entity to tell me to go home early. The number of times I've shown the initiative to leave work in the middle of the day will probably earn me some sort of civic award eventually.)
But how do you make sure a nation's workers are actually availing themselves of these new opportunities for a better work-life balance? Well, you ask them to report it to you. And of course, the reports have to be complicated.
We've officially reached extra-paperwork-about-reducing-paperwork territory.
Earlier this month, the most complicated form I've ever seen came across my desk, asking for a detailed accounting of my schedule. This is the new way. I obsessively note times to mark my comings and goings, and I enter all of these into little boxes. I search for codes that represent different types of time away from work. There are new spreadsheets to learn. Things need to be stamped. And it's all in the name of making sure I'm not doing too much work.
What happens when a nation of workaholics tries to solve its work problem? They work really hard on it. I admire the effort, but come on. It's another bad look.
It's moments like this that I think about the US's trusty Paperwork Reduction Act. I am still a fan, after all, and I could be just the person to introduce the concept here. But you know what stops me? The paperwork would be ridiculous.
Justin Whittinghill is an Owensboro native who works as an assistant professor of English at Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column runs on the last Sunday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.