Why do the Japanese Work so Hard?

Japanese Salary ManThere remains this enormous and wicked sociocultural myth. It is this: Hard work is all there is.

Work hard and the world respects you. Work hard and you can have anything you want. Work really extra super hard and do nothing else but work and ignore your family and spend 14 hours a day at the office and make 300 grand a year that you never have time to spend, sublimate your soul to the corporate machine and enjoy a profound drinking problem and sporadic impotence and a nice 8BR mini-mansion you never spend any time in, and you and your shiny BMW 740i will get into heaven.

This is the Japanese Puritan work ethos (much like that in America of course), still alive and screaming and sucking the world dry. Work is the answer. Work is also the question. Work is the one thing really worth doing and if you’re not working you’re either a slacker or a leech, unless you’re a victim of Koizumi/Abe Co’s budget-reamed Japan and you’ve been laid off, and therefore it’s OK because that means you’re out there every day pounding the pavement looking for work and honing your resume and if you’re not, well, what the hell is wrong with you?

Call it “the cafe question.” Any given weekday you can stroll by any given coffee shop in the city and see dozens of people milling about, casually sipping and eating and reading and it’s freakin’ noon on a Tuesday and you’re like, wait, don’t these people work? Don’t they have jobs? They can’t all be students and trust-fund babies and cocktail waitresses and drummers in struggling rock bands who live at home with their mums.

Of course, they’re not. Not all of them, anyway. Some are creative types. Some are corporate rejects. Some just take up space, posting photos of their cats to Facebook or chasing glory on PartyBingo.com. Some are recovering cube slaves now dedicated full time to working on their paintings. Some are world travelers who left their well-paying gigs months ago to cruise around Vietnam on a motorcycle before returning to start an import-export business in rare hookahs. And we look at them and go, What is wrong with these people?

It’s a bitter duality: We scowl at those who decide to chuck it all and who choose to explore something radical and new and independent, something more attuned with their passions, even as we secretly envy them and even as our inner voices scream and applaud and throw confetti.

Japanese city culture allows almost no room for creative breaks. There is little tolerance for seeking out a different kind of “work” that doesn’t somehow involve cubicles and widening butts and sour middle managers monitoring your e-mail and checking your Web site logs to see if you’ve wasted a precious 37 seconds of company time browsing mixi.jp or reading up on the gay marriage apocalypse.

We are at once infuriated by and enamored with the idea that some people can just up and quit their jobs or take a leave of absence or take out a loan to go back to school, how they can give up certain “mandatory” lifestyle accoutrements in order to dive back into some seemingly random creative/emotional/spiritual endeavor that has nothing to do with paying taxes or the buying of products or the boosting of the GNP. It just seems so … un-Japanese. But it is so, so needed.電車で寝るサラリーマン

Case in point No. 1: A Woman. She is deep in medical school right now, studying to be a naturopathic doctor at Bastyr University just outside Seattle, the toughest school of its kind in the nation, and the most difficult to get into, especially if you’ve had no formal medical training beforehand, as this particular lady hadn’t.

She got in. She bucked all expectation and thwarted the temptation to quit and take a well-paying corporate job and she endured the incredibly brutal first year and rose to the top of her class. Oh and by the way, she did it all when she was over 40. With almost no money. While going through an ugly, debt-ridden divorce.

Oh you’re so lucky that you have the means to do that, we think. I’d love to do that but I can’t because I have too many a) bills b) babies c) doubts, we insist. We always think such lives are for others and never for ourselves, something people with huge chunks of cash reserves or huge hunks of time or huge gobs of wildly ambitious talent can do. It is never for us.

And truly, this mind-set is the Japanese plague, a fate worse than death.

And while it must be acknowledged that there are plenty who are in such dire financial or emotional circumstances that they simply cannot bring change, no matter how much they might wish it, you still always gotta ask: How much is legit, and how much is an excuse born of fear?

The powers that be absolutely rely on our lethargy, our rampant doubts, the attitude that says that it’s just too difficult or too impracticable to break away. After all, to quit a bland but stable job, to follow your own path implies breaking the rules and asking hard questions and dissing the status quo. And they absolutely cannot have that.

Case in point No. 2: Another lady, a specialist in goddesses and mystics and world religions, who is right now working on a book, a raw funky spirituality “anti-guide” for younger women. She took a six-month leave of absence from a very decent, reliable, friendly administrative job so as to focus on the creation of this project.

And while she has no trust fund, she does have the “luxury” of small parental loans to help her through, though it hardly matters: Giving up her respectable gig was insanely stressful and wracked with doubt. Leave a honest job? Give up paid health care? Have no reliable source of income for months on end? Trade calm stability for risk and random chance? No way, most people say. And of course, it was the absolute best choice she could’ve made. Time instantly became more fluid and meaningful. Mental clutter vanished. Possibility grinned.

Case in point No. 3: Not long ago, the CEO of one of the largest and most powerful international real estate firms in the country quit his job. Stepped down. Not, as you might imagine, for retirement and not to play more golf and not to travel the world staying only in Four Seasons suites, but to work on rebuilding his relationship with his estranged wife.

A friend working there, told me that it was one of the most touching, and unexpected, and incredibly rare corporate memos she had ever seen. No one — I mean no one in this culture is supposed to quit a job like that just for, what again? Love? Relationship? It’s simply not done. But of course, it absolutely should be.

We are designed, weaned, trained from Day 1 to be productive members of society. And we are heavily guilted into believing that must involve some sort of droning repetitive pod-like dress-coded work for a larger corporate cause, a consumerist mechanism, a nice happy conglomerate. Is this really how you want your life to turn out? (see video)


But the truth is, God (or whoever it is up above that looks over us…) loves nothing more than to see you unhinge and take risk and invite regular, messy, dangerous upheaval. This is exactly the energy that thwarts the demons of stagnation and conservative rot and violent sanctimonious bloody Mel Gibson-y religion, one that would have all our work be aimed at continuously patching up our incessant potholes of ugly congenital guilt, as opposed to contributing to the ongoing orgiastic evolution of spirit.

It is not for everyone. It implies incredibly difficult choices and arranging your life in certain ways and giving up certain luxuries and many, many people seemed locked down and immovable and all done with exploring new options in life, far too deeply entrenched in debts and family obligations and work to ever see such unique light again. Maybe you know such people. Maybe you are such people.

But then again, maybe not. This is the other huge truism we so easily forget: There is always room. There are always choices we can begin to make, changes we can begin to invite, rules we can work to upset, angles of penetration we can try to explore. And if that’s not worth trying, well, what is?

32 thoughts on “Why do the Japanese Work so Hard?”

  1. I particularly liked the video at the bottom, related well to my life here. I have been in Japan now for quite a while, and feel like my life is going toward the same direction as that guy. Really made me think about where I want to be in 10 years, noting that I7m in my 40’s now. はーぁ。

  2. Hmmmm.

    1. *shrug* Do you enjoy your work? If not, then why do it?

    I program computers and I still enjoy doing so even after almost 30 years of professional programming. So I don’t mind putting in the extra hours if they’re necessary.

    2. Frankly the vast majority of time spent at work is wasted.

    In general terms I’ve seen the 80/20 rule in force in almost every circumstance. This rule is basically that 80% of the useful work, vs. “work”, is done by 20% of the workforce. That 80% of the work that needs to be done is useless process oriented make-work that doesn’t actually accomplish anything.

    So people who spend extraordinary amounts of time working in an office are usually either working very inefficiently, spending way too much time goofing off or making mistakes that they’d recognize as a mistake if they took a few minutes to really think about it. Personally I can’t count the thousands of lines of programming code that I spent hours, days or even weeks working on that I’d later on simply throw away once I’d realized that it was my thinking that was mistaken.

    3. I’d read a study that showed that Americans slightly edged out the Japanese as the hardest working people in the world.

    Believe it, or not. YMMV.

  3. Personally, I’ve found that, “Japanese work too hard” is not quite the truth so much as, “Japanese work too long.”

  4. I work as an assistant English teacher (JET) and I know that people in my program have a bad reputation for being lazy. But, WOW! The school office is constantly full of chatter – at one of my schools, the teachers gather ’round for Youtube videos (or something) and laugh and giggle and, just wow.

    There is so much room to work and play at a Japanese school that it is almost wrong. We also get to play with the kids from time to time.

    In my experience, the teachers do stay late, often scrambling around with mysterious papers that they are grading? Reading for fun? Perhaps they’re making up for the day they spent sitting around giggling. But, the thing is that, at night (usually no later than 7), the work pace is much slower, much easier and the chatting continues.

    The Japanese may work long and hard, but at a school, they mix it up with a LOT of togetherness. Couldn’t ask for a better job.

  5. I agree with Dave and Katie. I don’t think Japanese work as hard as is believed. They do stay at work for long hours though.

  6. Part of the problem is that it is so damn hard to concentrate in your typical open-plan Japanese office that you end up getting most of your useful work done after the crowds have gone home. If I could come in at 1pm and leave at 9pm, I’d get as much work done as if I came in at 9am. But the Japanese office norm dictates that I come in at 9am regardless of what time I leave. So it’s 12 hours a day for me usually, of which I’m being paid 8 hours worth of salary, which is the amount of work I actually do. The other 4 hours are hard to account for, but I needn’t be spending them in the office.

  7. Has anyone done a study or simply figured out how these salary men can go out and get blind drunk and then still function at work in the morning?

  8. Because they do very little actual work during the day. Just ass-kissing.
    — Louis J Sheehan

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed the article. I like to buy a lottery ticket from time to time just to dream of what I would do with the money. Then after thinking up some really good ideas I ask myself, what is stopping me from achieving those dreams?

  10. Me, I’m fixing to graduate from high school, and I still have yet to figure out what i want to do. I do know for sure that I don’t walk in some cubicle hell, costantly worrying about bills. however, I guess it’s a question of courage. Do we stick to the status quo? Get some stable job, pension, bills, and all that? Or shake things up? Honestly, I’d love to do the latter myself, and so would a lot of people I think, but I guess the unknown is scary. You know?

  11. you wrote so beautifully. you have a good way with words. it affected me, and i do work for jap company.

  12. The Japanese sleep in public because they are very relaxed. They don’t carry the ‘guilt feelings’ of Westerners and they are not self-conscious in the same way as Westerners.
    you good japan very very fun more live japan plaese very very ben more you like go back

  13. my japanese coworker’s schedule is 8 to 5 while mine is 745am to 430pm.

    he always comes earlier than me and leave later than me but we do the same # of jobs each week.

    japanese working long hours is just ineffective I think.

    I get the praises from our manager while he gets complaints regularly.

    dont be fooled, working long hours doesnt mean you are hard working or that you are smart. it just means you need more hours to complete the job.

  14. I can say, Japanese work very sincerely…compared to Americans.
    I am an American working for Toyota, and I feel more proud working here in San Antonio , Texas than I was felt working for Ford. Sorry to be so True ….

  15. We are just forced to work against our will.
    We have to gladly work over time and even on Sundays and national holidays without pay.
    or we would be fired.
    Or we are forced to quit the job by abusing.

    Most of the companies ignore labor low.

  16. I lived in Japan for several years but have been back in my home country (U.S.) for more than a decade. When I taught English at various companies in the evening, it seemed that the vast majority of people I saw working at 8 p.m. or later weren’t doing much. Many at their desks looked like they were moving in slow motion. A few would even have their heads down on their desks and appeared to be sleeping! Why didn’t they just go home? As I often heard from Japanese friends, “We cannot go home until the boss goes home.” What a waste!

    Almost 4 years ago, my wife, who is Japanese, started working full-time here in the U.S. Here immediate supervisor is also Japanese. My wife often complains about how little sleep she gets, saying that she has no choice but to leave before the sun comes up. At that time, traffic is very light, so her drive should take her about 40-45 minutes. She usually leaves at least an hour and a half before she has to start work. It’s great that she makes sure she is never late, but she ends up starting work at least 45 minutes earlier than what she’s paid for. She says she has to do it because her boss usually comes in then.

    Even if she works no more than her official hours (which she has rarely ever done), her company has her there for nearly 9 hours because they won’t pay her for the time during her so-called lunch break. I say “so-called” because she says she has to stay at her desk to answer the phone in case someone calls. Occasionally, her boss covers it and she can step out.

    A few weeks ago, I had to drive almost right past her office while I was going somewhere on business. The day before, I asked if she could meet me for lunch. I knew her “break” was only 45 minutes, so I said that I could even get us some good take-out and we could either eat outside her building at the small picnic area. Since she had already given so much of her time to her company, I didn’t think it unreasonable at all for her to ask her boss about that. My wife, however, responded as if I must be crazy to think that she could ask such a thing of her boss!

    I believe she is being taken advantage of. People risked their lives — and some actually gave their lives — in the fight for basic labor rights, such as the 40-hour work week. My wife, however, like too many Japanese, can’t even find enough courage to make a mild request to step outside and eat lunch with her husband during HER OWN TIME! I understand that her immediate supervisor is Japanese, but it is an American company on American soil and there are probably well over a hundred people working there, nearly all Americans, including the 2 or 3 levels above her own supervisor. If the company and her boss are in any way pressuring her to give her unpaid time to them, they are in violation of the law and subject to criminal penalties. But that doesn’t seem to be the case — her immediate boss might be Japanese, but she is a woman who has lived here over 30 years and whose husband is South American, and as far as I know, the boss has never even suggested to my wife that she must begin work earlier than the official time. I’m not sure about the lunch situation, but I do know that whenever I have even hinted that she is being taken advantage of, she reacts as if I am attacking her! Any criticism of her company, in fact, seems to her to be a personal attack.

    Her company does give her good benefits (by U.S. standards), but that’s not some sort of favor that this huge company is doing for her. They do that to attract good people. I am sure that her company, like too many other American companies (and a growing number of Japanese firms), would not hesitate to lay her and everyone else off in her building if they felt the need to make cuts, and they would do so with as little notice as possible. Yet my wife seems to believe she is back in pre-1990’s Japan.

    We have kids and many demands on our time. My wife never seems to get enough sleep, and she could certainly use at least a little time for herself. Then there is the matter of how difficult it is for the 2 of us ever to find time alone. Yet in after almost 4 years of giving her own time — unpaid time — she still can’t step out for 30 minutes or so during HER lunch “break” to meet her husband! As I implied above, the problem stems in large part (and maybe even entirely) from her own attitude. She has a sense of duty toward the company that she places above her other duties, including her duty to take care of her own physical, mental, and emotional health. Like a lot of Japanese, she acts as if there is nothing she can do about it (“Shikata ga nai…”), thinking of herself as almost some sort of victim, and won’t even discuss the matter, let alone admit that there is any sort of problem.

    Wow! This post is long! Sorry… but obviously, this gets me angry! I used to blame her boss & her company more for this situation, and while they might deserve at least some of the blame, it seems more & more clear that most of it rests with her. If she had at least some ambition to rise to a higher position in the company, I would understand, but she would rather stay right where she is. I guess for some it is easier just to play the victim.

  17. I lived in Japan and talked to many of these people. They don’t work so hard, they work long hours. It’s better to say they spend long hours in the office rather than working. I heard the story many times the workers just stay in the office late, but not actually working, they are just waiting for the boss to leave first. It’s completely useless. The other thing is in many companies they don’t need company approval for overtime. If they want more money they just stay in the office longer.

  18. so there is no difference to korean. I worked in korea. My manager complains everytime i leave office earlier than him eventhough i have finished my works. Korean is just same as to Japanese. The koreans stay in office till their manager/boss leave. this is not efficient.
    I found that i make many mistake in working when i leave office late (about 9-10 pm).

    My boss want me to stay in office long hours. He excuses everytime i give the reason why i leave office earlier.

    anyway, I still leave office earlier than him or everytime i am done with my work or it’s not an urgent work…enjoy life….it’s not worth to work for company that steal your life.

  19. This articie is dated but still appropriate for today. Japanese do not work hard, unless your a shokunin, and then they do, very hard. But they take breaks and are a bit distant from the corporate culture. Japanese do things out of obligation, and staying late and conforming to group culture is part of that. To rock the boat and leave early is a sin, but Ive seen it happen. Some rebel Japanese just dont care, and I really admired them, but they are the exception. Some companies now, believe it or not, actually do not allow overtime for keiyaku shains due to enviromental waste concerns. I found many Japanese, compared to Western workers, to be quite lazy. Initiative is not something Japanese are known for. You will hear yells of “hai” all throughout the day, meaning “yes!, I understand” and obdiently following some seniors barking instruction. They are dependant on the group to get them through their career. This dependancy creates a paternal enviroment, actually quite sickening to be honest but this child/parent relationship is part of Asian culture. The plus side is that there isnt the used you up now Im done with you attitude in the West. Your expected to stay with the company for a long time, in return you hand over your mind body and soul and if your a sei shain, your free time as well as many join clubs after work. which do I reccomend? I think North European companies (of course, not in Japan) are the best. A bit of the group security feel but without extreme conformity. For work ethic, hands down the U.S. They didnt get to be #1 by folowing anybody.

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