Konnichiwa…it’s me again. Observing work life in Japan has been eye-opening, in so many ways.
My current schedule is very different from the traditional Monday to Friday, 9:00-5:00 (or more like 9:30-6:30), that I was used to working in a more corporate setting.The change has had its trade offs. On the plus side I am basically free between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on weekdays, leaving time for running errands, working out, going sightseeing, enjoying the weather (now that it is warmer outside) …and occasionally taking a cat nap. Sometimes, it also takes a bit of the mundane routines out of the week. I am enjoying a relatively shorter commute to work (it literally takes a half hour door-to-door each way, which is a third of the time that I had previously spent commuting).
The nature of the job allows me to come to work each day, teach and leave. I don’t spend my evenings thinking about office politics, or have to take work home with me.
Do I miss working in a traditional corporate environment? Some days, I do. Let’s face it. Having weekends off is more conducive to having a social life. And calling in sick, or strolling in a few minutes late is not an option. However, as I said, there are trade offs, and it is relatively less stressful.
I am reminded of this, when I see my room mates return home from work in the late evenings, sometimes between 11:00 p.m. and midnight, telling me that they barely caught the last train home after work, meaning that their work day has been at least 12 hours. I am shaking my head at this as I think to myself, that they will probably stay awake for a few more hours just to unwind, go to bed to sleep for a few hours, only to wake up the next morning just to do it again.
Additional insights into the work life balance are provided by the working professionals that I teach, telling me how long their days are. I also witness this on the 9:30 evening train from Nihonbashi, which is often almost just as crowded as the 7:30 morning train. The only difference is that the night train is filled with the distinct smell of alcohol, and people are generally in a more jovial mood, than the quite, somber morning commute, hinting that a stop was made to the local watering hole, before going home. Work hard? Play hard?
These long hours beg so many questions, many of which based on my limited knowledge and perspective, I can only answer by theorizing. Why the long hours? Do people burn out? What about efficiency and productivity?
So why the long hours? According to the OECD’s latest report on average, Japanese workers worked 1729 hours in a year, which is only 3% lower than the OECD average, so when one looks at it that way, that is not a long work week. However, these are the reported hours, which I suspect are not the actual hours inclusive of overtime. Japan appears to have a work culture, where job security has traditionally been guaranteed with people usually having life-long employment. Perhaps this has given employees loyalty, a sense of gratitude, team spirit and a commitment to give back to their employers by putting in long hours. Working long hours seems ingrained from childhood, as children sometimes take private classes and extra lessons on weekends.
What about efficiency? When looking at efficiency, one has to acknowledge that Japanese products and services have been long recognized for their quality and careful attention to detail, and that Japan is the birthplace of many global brands like Toyota, Honda, Canon, Sony, and UNIQLO. Looking at productivity from a GDP perspective, Japan for the longest time ranked as the second largest economy in the world, behind the United States, and even after being over taken by China, has still remained in the top 3. When measuring productivity (GDP divided by numbers worked), each hour worked contributed $40.1 of the GDP, which is lower than the OECD average, and the U.S average of $64.1.
Do people burn out? Karoshi, “…means death due to occupational overwork and stress.”, or with non-fatal, but equally serious consequences like mental stress and cardiovascular diseases. In 2014, legislation was enacted by Japan’s Diet (parliament) to “[promote], countermeasures against karoshi [ ]. Today more than 2000 applications for workers’ compensation or survivors’ benefits are filed annually by workers or families seeking state recognition for death, disability or depression caused by overwork.”
What does the future look like? Japan has been studying legislation over the last 4 years, that will make it mandatory for employers to ensure that workers currently take their holiday time. Currently, not all employees use the vacation days entitled to them. Negative perceptions from colleagues are cited as a reason, as well as not wanting to burden their team members while they are away. The potential legislation aims to mitigate the health, social, and productivity effects that extreme hours have. The sequential nature of holidays during Golden week and Silver week, also make it possible for employees to actually take holidays
As an outsider, these are just some of my thoughts when observing work/life balance in Japan? I don’t claim to be an expert on the issue, but more so just want to share my observations as a point for discussion, and an attempt to understand. What are your thoughts? Have you observed this dynamic in other cultures? Thank you for reading, and please feel free to comment below.