Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Thoughts on the work ethic in Japan

My friend Michael writes a great article on the work-life balance problem in Japan. According to the article, Michael is about to graduate and is understandably quite concerned about whether he’ll be able to achieve a good balance if he starts working in Japan. I’ve been working for a few years now and I’m just about to finish my first year in Japan. I thought I’d write a little bit about my take on the subject.

Why this is an issue

More than anything else, the Japanese work ethic has been the hardest thing for me to adjust to in Japan. This is not just in relation to my job and career but also in relation to the working habits of my loved ones and friends in Japan. The following examples may shock some of you but they will hopefully illustrate why I find myself getting angry with the whole situation.

  • I met one of my friends recently who works for the government and serves politicians. He currently works on preparing answers that the politicians will have to give to questions posed to them. He says that, on average, he goes home at 4:30am everyday. He then has to return to the office at 9am, in time for the politician’s questions. He has a two year old son that he hasn’t seen in quite a while. I was stunned that he found the time to meet with me at the weekend. Another friend who was there and having coffee with us works as a lawyer. She says she never goes home before midnight.
  • One of my colleagues was particularly busy last year and he says that he was going home after midnight (at the earliest) everyday. He was also working weekends. Things are a lot better now but he says that last year, he thought that he was going to have to stop working for an extended period due to the severe deterioration of his health. He is approaching thirty and still lives with his parents, who cook his dinner and probably help him out at home.
  • A story that I heard, and that I believe, comes from a colleague who used to work at one of the large technology companies famous for brutal overtime work practices. He says that one of his former colleagues walked into the office one day to find a team member slumped over his desk. He gave him a nudge to wake him up and discovered that his body was cold. An example of karoshi – death by overwork. I find myself aghast and disgusted by the utter irresponsibility and cowardice of the person in question and of management that would allow something like this to happen. This is surely the ultimate example of why Japan has a serious problem on its hands. The story made me sick with revulsion.
These stories are not typical and the average situation is very different but there is no mistake in saying that in Tokyo people work long hours. Many of my friends and contacts tell me that they regularly miss the last train home (after midnight).

My Company

I work in a very traditional Japanese company of just under 100 employees. Contractually, we are obliged to be in the office from 8:45am to 5:15pm. Everyone arrives on time in the mornings but very few people leave the office at 5:15pm. Some people leave quite early – between 6pm and 7pm – and these people are typically women who work in administrative roles. The latest that people regularly stay in the office is probably about midnight. Everyone else is somewhere in between. I would guess that the average is about 8:30pm. Factors that increase the probability of staying late in the office are: being male, being young, recently joining the company and having a strict boss. I can’t be sure but I think that most people only claim a small portion of the pay attributable to the overtime that they work.

As for me, I decided early on that I would leave the office between 7pm and 8pm everyday unless there is important work to do. I’ve generally stuck to that rule. On busy periods I’ve worked until about 10pm, but days like those are rare. I’m usually about the third person in my department to leave the office. I almost always go home before my boss, who usually stays quite late. I worried about leaving earlier than average but now I don’t worry so much. I’ve never received a word of complaint or been asked to work longer.

People’s attitudes

Mike seems to have been getting some pretty harsh feedback from his enquiries into these issues. It’s all been “doom and gloom” and the impression he got was “suck it up and stop whining or work in another country”. Maybe Mike was asking the wrong questions. Before you get a job, if you ask people whether you’ll be able to go home at a reasonable hour every day in Japan then it’s not surprising that they will want to manage expectations and warn you about how tough it will be. It is tough to maintain a good balance and compete with other workers and build a good career for yourself, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Since I’m already working, I haven’t been asking about what it’s like, since I know what it’s like. Instead, I’ve been asking my Japanese colleagues why they’re in the office so long. The answer I always get is that they don’t want to work late and that they wish they could go home early. Without exception, they agree with me when I put forward arguments such as:
  • If you work too hard then you get ill and end up taking time off anyway (I’ve seen this so much it makes me want to scream)
  • Happy workers are more effective workers
  • Workers that have time to go home, eat good food, rest and exercise are more effective workers
  • Staying in the office because your boss hasn’t gone home yet, even though you’ve got nothing to do, is idiotic
  • Blah blah blah, I could go on all day
I went to visit a friend for lunch recently who has been working in a large Japanese trading company for the last thirty years. We talked about these issues and he sighed at me saying, “I wonder when this country will change. Twenty years ago I watched as we started to take more notice of western thinking and practices and I hoped that outside influence might instigate a change for the better. However, significant improvement still seems far away.”

After talking to Japanese people in this fashion and challenging them on why they work this way, you might think that there’s a real, latent desire for change. I believe that people do want to change but there’s a deeper problem with the Japanese mindset, which makes it difficult.

Japanese people like working hard. More than that, they want to be acknowledged as a hard worker amongst their peers. One of the most common phrases that you’ll here in the office is, “お疲れ様です”, which translates literally as, “You must be tired” or more accurately as, “You’ve been working hard, thank you”. It’s the first thing you say whenever you start talking to a colleague. When you leave the office, it’s appropriate to say, “お先に失礼します”, which translates as “Excuse me for leaving before you”. Acknowledgment of other people’s hard work is a huge part of Japanese working culture. When I meet friends and ask how their job is going, it’s common for them to tell me stories about how difficult it’s been, how hard they’ve been working and of course, the appropriate response is to be sympathetic and compliment the other person on their efforts. Those people that tell me horror stories of endless late nights have a slight hint of pride in their voices and are usually looking for a response of, “Wow, you’ve been working hard”, rather than what I’m thinking, which is “Are you nuts? Go home early or change your job and stop tormenting your family.” Easier said than done in the current environment though.

There’s always a choice

Human beings are herd animals and this has been demonstrated to devastating effect with the expansion and inevitable collapse of countless economic bubbles. Japanese people are perhaps even more so. It’s certainly true that it’s difficult to go home early if everyone is working late, but it’s not impossible. I’ve been going home an hour or two earlier than average and I haven’t had any complaints. In fact, I’ve noticed that people around me are actually starting to go home earlier as well. I try to participate as much as I can in the social scene at work – I participate in regular soccer games, recent cherry blossom viewing trips and of course, nomikais. These events are only once a week and I’d much rather go home late after socializing rather than go home late after sitting at my desk all day. Building good relationships in the workplace helps a lot with 1. not feeling guilty when you go home and 2. convincing other people that they should go home early too!

I only believe people half of the time when they tell me that they have to work late every day because of their huge burden of work. Work never ends and if I wanted to, and had the energy, I could make up countless projects to do that would keep me at the office 24 hours a day. You have to prioritize the important stuff and Japanese people are really bad at that. OK, that’s not quite accurate, they’re not bad at prioritizing, they’re bad at leaving low priority stuff for the next day. Many of my colleagues won’t leave the office until they’ve finished everything, even if it’s late. Conscientious is the word. To the point of absurdity.

What companies should do

I looked at some data regarding overtime in Japan. Here are some links:

None of it is pretty. However, the problem with the data is that it relies on the accuracy of the accounts of those who are working. As I mentioned previously, most of my colleagues don’t claim a decent portion of their overtime. I also mentioned the “aren’t I working hard” mentality, so it’s hard to assess how accurately questionnaires would be filled out. I think it should be compulsory for overtime to be measured in an objective way. For example, if there’s security in the building, workers should sign out with security staff and the time they leave the office should be logged. This would be a good idea for security reasons as well. If there’s no security staff, as with my company, then the electronic keycards that we have should be used to monitor the time we leave the building. There are various laws relating to wages for overtime work and these should provide incentives for management to look after their employees. The senior managing director at my company told me that he wants people to go home early because overtime pay costs the company money. I suspect the problem is that these laws can’t be implemented effectively because no one is telling the truth about how long they’re working. Applying measures like the ones I’ve suggested, especially against the larger companies where people work the most overtime, would make a difference.

Update: It turns out that claiming overtime isn't as easy as it should be: see post


  1. Interesting article.

    Over here in Malaysia the standard working hours are 9-6. Generally I see most people following that, and not doing excessive overtime.

    Personally, I try to leave the office shortly after 6. Of course, if there is an urgent issue that needs addressing I'd stay and deal with it, but generally I think it's important to stick to leaving on time for the following reasons:

    - It makes you think about how to improve your job performance efficiency. If you have it in your mind that you will work for as long as it takes to complete all tasks for the day, you have no incentive to analyze how you actually perform these tasks, and improve them. On the other hand, if you do have a time deadline, you will constantly ask yourself "how can I do this more efficiently?"

    - Overtime usually produces resulting "undertime"; time when you are at the office, but not actually working very hard, or even at all (concept mentioned in Peopleware).

    - Working too many hours just wears people out in the long run and ultimately they cannot produce any quality work.

    - A balance in life keeps you healthy, and even gives you the time to explore ideas that might benefit your work practices or even your company. Just blindly hammering away at your job leaves no time for thinking 'out-of-the-box'.

    - I could go on all day...

    I'm enjoying the insight into Japan that you are giving via this blog!

  2. Hey Calum, great to hear from you. And thanks for reading the blog!

    Good to hear that Malaysia is a bit more sane.

    I totally agree with all of your points but you're preaching to the converted here mate.

  3. Thanks for the linkback and detailed writeup of your experiences! You've given me a lot of food for thought and some hope that I can live a balanced life in Japan. I appreciate it ^^

  4. Hi Michael. Glad that you enjoyed the post. I saw on Twitter that you're thinking about JET. With JLPT 1 under your belt, I'm sure that you have a wide range of options available to you and you don't have to teach English. I started out at a language school and hated it but I've heard that JET is much better. Hope it goes well, whichever way you go!

  5. Hello---
    Great post. Found it through JapanSoc.

    I'm currently working at an eikaiwa chain, and it gives me the strange chance to observe the Japanese staff firsthand without being responsible for the same work that they are.
    One thing some of my coworkers and I have discussed is the inefficiency and overabundance of unnecessary tasks.

    For example, when we send promotional material to our students and their families, each school's staff must hand-stamp the return address on every envelope or post card. For even one of the smaller schools (with only two Japanese staff members), this means hand-stamping over 100 pieces of mail.
    The company obviously orders much of the material (such as standard envelopes with the company letterhead), so I don't see why they don't order everything with the schools' addresses printed out as well. Even in the case of postcards which they print at the office, they leave the return address space blank to be hand-stamped.

    This is just one example, but I see the same kind of thing every day I work.

    Anyway, thanks again for the interesting post, and thanks as wel to Michael for his well-worded worries.

  6. You know, just reading that last line of your post got me to thinking about a conversation I had once with a Brit I was working with in my office last year.

    I forget which country it was in Europe - maybe Sweden or something - but they have a law there that if a worker has averaged more than 50 hours a week I think that the company is required by law to hire another employee. Based on the fact that companies that pay overtime should be giving people 150% (sometimes becomes 130%) of their salaries after hours, wouldn't it be better for both the company AND the employees if they just hire more people??

    That argument seems just so lucid and clear to me that I can't see why Japanese people don't understand it, and yet I still get the same responses you do when I bring it up. Just goes to show that there's nothing we as foreigners can do about it- this is one problem that only they can fix, from within.

  7. I wonder whether it starts from childhood as all wonderful things do....or 'deeper in the culture'

    As far as I was aware Japanese culture instils this long hours culture from an early age - my mum was telling me once about how the lack of sleep would determine whether someone would pass or fail an exam so 4 hours sleep - pass 6 hours sleep - fail....

    It seems in Japan you're brought up to not have much time for anything even after school you have juku and it's not like just the geeky kids go to that, everyone goes and you feel left out if you don't attend these lessons.

    I read somewhere that this kind of long hours, extreme emphasis on hardwork and exam culture was stifling Japan's youth and their ability to think creatively - maybe this has had an effect on people's ability to think outside the box? I mean work life balance is all about accepting individuality, being able to think creatively about how you work and see your life, and accepting differences between people. Work places need to understand that people have different needs. But I'm not sure that's how Japan works - what's that famous Japanese phrase 'the nail that sticks out gets hammered down'


  8. To all: Thanks for reading the blog and for your comments.

    @japanwalker I might do a post one day on the redundant tasks that many Japanese workers do. I’m sorry to say that I’m a victim of this phenomenon! There are many tasks I have to do which seem unnecessary and many which would be accomplished far more quickly using technology.

    @darg I think the point is that it would be better for the company to hire new people only if the employees are actually claiming their overtime! I can tell you that many of my colleagues don’t. My suggestion in the article was to enforce rules such that employees aren’t allowed to report their own working hours. Instead, a separate person should be in charge of monitoring everyone’s hours in the office. Japanese people are happy to allow themselves to suffer for the benefit of the group/company but are loath to inflict inconvenience/suffering on others. That’s why I think rules like that might work. I think 100% pay for accurately reported overtime would be a far better situation than 150% for inaccurately reported overtime.

    @macthomas You’re right, my post only just scratches the surface. It starts from a young age with schoolwork and juku. The “do your best” ethic is in many ways a wonderful part of the Japanese character but the problems I highlighted in my post are an extreme and unfortunate consequence. I disagree that a work-life balance needs to go hand in hand with individuality though. Like you said, Japan isn’t an individualistic society. Trying to do it the same way as it’s done in Europe won’t work. I think it just needs to be fair and there needs to be a set of rules to protect people that everyone can abide by. The current rules don’t work – employees have to speak out and be assertive in claiming overtime and holiday. Japanese people hate that. Who wants to get hit on the head with a hammer? I think it’s possible to create a system where this isn’t necessary and employees receive their dues automatically. Having said all this, I think the situation is improving and the old guard are gradually retiring from the leading positions they have.

  9. Hey Andrew. I'm in the process of starting up a podcast with Koichi and Deas about all things Japan. This is a rather weighty topic, but for one would love to hear you say a few positive words about what can be done to help address the overtime situation in Japan. If you're interested in doing a short section, please contact me (the contact form on my website). - I couldn't find a contact address for you on your site :(


  10. Hi
    First time i got to know that this is not the willingness that Japanese people work for long hours but its a compulsion for them. Here in India situations are very much similar. Most of the companies ask for 9 hours or 9 hr 30 mins in a day. My earstwhile boss was asking for 10 hours.
    Now i do work independently so its not bothersome for me.

    After reading this article i came to the conclusion that working criteria in asian nations is always same when work hours come into question.

  11. This is really disturbing. The negative consequences of this overwork and self-sacrifice culture are troubling:

  12. It's overtime if you gt paid for it.  It's just long work hours if you don't.

  13. I was working at a government-affiliated organization. The permanent Japanese staff spent their day laughing and smiling, and usually went home on time. But different things were expected from the foreign team. I didn't comply as I had to prepare for an important exam in my free time. My contract was not renewed.

    I'll say very simply why no-one should do overtime for a Japanese organization:

    - The organization will eventually throw you out without a thought, no matter what effort you make. As a foreigner and a non-permanent worker, your needs are always secondary.
    - You'll get a lot more work done if you do reasonable hours (look at the lessons from the UK's industrial revolution!)
    - You are certainly not helping Japan by doing it - if doing overtime was so productive, this economy would be growing in leaps and bounds, not shrinking!!!

    So, get a life, all of you! (I mean that in a kind way)

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