Back in the Q is for Quirky post, we looked at one of the biggest stereotypes of Japan, and by and large debunked it. However, this time we turn to the other big overarching narrative of the Japanese: that of being workaholics. And with this one, I think we’re going to have a harder time disagreeing with. In fact, while I don’t agree with some of the specifics of that workaholic image, I will say that I do agree with the idea that Japan and its people work too darn long.
Now, notice my wording there: too long, not too hard. Because that is one of the biggest misconceptions. I am generalizing here – I personally know a lot of Japanese folk who earn an honest yen – but the Japanese approach to work results in very long hours with comparatively little work done. The concept of Japanese efficiency, in this regard anyway, is a myth because it’s not within the national psyche to streamline and take shortcuts. This was touched on in the R is for Rules post, but the ubiquitous ‘kata’, that all-encompassing ‘how-to’ that rigidly dictates the correct way to do things, regardless of if you see a quicker and simpler way to get the same results. Other reasons for this low productivity include the attitude that working long just makes it look like you’re a committed worker: even if you’re dragging your heels until 8:00pm, you’re going to get in the bosses good books easier than Shinji who got twice as much done as you but had the nerve to leave at 6:00pm.
There’s also the whole concept of 終身雇用 (Shūshin Koyō), offering lifetime employment from hiring as a fresh-graduate right through to retirement. While the economic collapse of the early 90s and the slow but steady globalization of Japan have eroded this concept somewhat, there still remains an attitude that you don’t fire people. This has its benefits: if you work in Japan you will rarely if ever feel as though you are in a gladiator ring, fighting viciously over your colleagues to avoid getting laid off, but at the same time it does result in a lot of deadweight in offices that should have been fired a long time ago. The best that the higher-ups can do is nudge someone so that they choose to leave on their own accord, like a too-polite host who is trying every trick in the book to get their house guest to leave without actually asking them straight to get out.
So as you can see, there’s an awful lot of politics tangled up in the work culture here in Japan, and that’s a direct result of the Japanese attitude to work: that working is in of itself a lifestyle that so dominates a person’s waking moments that, far more than just being a means to an end, work is the end. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: many Japanese people define themselves by their work, whether they like it or not – it’s not like they have time to do or be anything else. Long office hours coupled with long commutes means home is a place to just get ready for sleep, wake up from sleep or if it’s a day off just simply lounge around all day to recover from the work done and be ready for the work ahead. Because your life outside of work contracts, and work life expands as it pushes the ideals of teamwork and going out drinking with colleagues after work, your lifestyle adjusts and one day you find that your work is literally your life. And there is nothing you can do about it.
Because here’s the kicker: all Japanese people know this. They are well aware that their work culture, once the envy of the western world, is now roundly criticized for being outdated and incompatible in the modern age. They will all nod and tell you in a forlorn whine that they work too long and would like to go home earlier, but those societal ideals of harmony, being a team player and not rocking the boat make it nigh on impossible to be that one office worker who puts their foot down and clocks out at the time their contract stipulates. The working culture and the cultural norms of Japan have the poor worker caught in the ultimate catch 22.
Times are a-changing, though. Year on year, the average hours worked by the Japanese has been falling, and people are starting to, albeit very gently, demand better opportunities for work-life balance, rather than selling your soul to work. And let’s hope that this trend continues to accelerate, because Japan really is a great place to live. It would be nice to see the Japanese actually enjoy living in it a bit more.