Japanese workers are famous for their seemingly inexhaustible dedication to their companies and ability to work long, long hours. Japanese even has a specific word for death from overwork: karōshi (過労死). But is this work ethic something that Westerners ought to admire, or is Japan in need of a holiday?

Japan Today asked foreigners “Why do you think Japanese work such long hours?” and received a huge amount of comments from people who had experienced life in a Japanese company. The responses were overwhelmingly negative about the Japanese work ethos, and many believe a shift in attitudes towards work right across society is necessary. Five points in particular stood out as particularly problematic.

There are plenty of extreme examples. On August 11, Watami Foodservice Co. had the extremely dubious honour of being awarded first prize in the “Black Corporation Awards 2013″, which assesses Japanese companies on discrimination, overwork, harassment, and so on. The company is accused of driving a new female employee to suicide just two months after joining the company – the insurance examiner calculated that the woman’s monthly overtime work exceeded 140 hours.

The problems in Japan’s workplaces aren’t just limited to the “black companies”, however. You can find people working late into the night in most of Japan’s offices, irrespective of the field or time of year. But does more overtime necessarily mean better results for the company? And do Japanese people really love their work so much that they’re prepared to put their health at risk? Japan Today’s survey suggests that all is not well in the Office of the Rising Sun.

  • Problem 1: Company loyalty

Compared to Europe and America, where it is common to change companies in pursuit of a higher salary and better working conditions, Japan is well-known for its “lifetime employment” system which has created a climate of strong company loyalty. There are many companies that express this with inclusive phrases such as “team spirit” or “team work”, but it’s essentially the same meaning.

Japanese workers have to show their company spirit even if those extra evening hours don’t amount to anything productive getting done. (paulinusa) 

I worked in a kaisha for two years and … I witnessed that they sleep at their desks to show exhaustion from work. So basically two hours asleep means they have to stay at least two hours after standard working hours. And also it is considered bad to leave before your boss and as most of time the boss has a boring life waiting for him back home he just sits there surfing the web or reading a newspaper while the other workers are dying to get home or out. (Kakukakushikajika)

For foreigners who see nothing wrong with transferring companies in order to advance their own career, it’s hard to understand why Japanese people feel so tied to their company, especially when their working conditions may be less than ideal. Japanese people often speak of loving their company and being proud to work there; it may never even cross their mind to question their loyalty to the company.

  • Problem 2: Low productivity

Many people pointed out the low productivity of Japanese companies. In other words, while there are lots of people putting in lots of hours, work seems to take longer. Employees don’t seem to try to finish their work within a set time limit, even going so far as to purposely drag out tasks in order to seem like they are working harder and putting in the extra effort.

My impression seems to be that while people are “working” long hours, a survey of how much time is being spent on smoke breaks, toilet breaks, sneaky phone calls, long lunch breaks etc would probably find that the average office worker only does about 5 – 6 hours of work. (Daniel Sullivan)

Most Japanese do not work hard, they just spend countless hours wasting time on pointless paperwork and irrelevant procedures. (Saxon Salute)

Some pretty harsh comments there, but is there an element of truth? Many foreigners make it their priority to work during their set hours, and leave when those hours are done. The impression many Japanese office workers give is that the hours on their contract are fairly irrelevant – as long as they are working more than those hours.


  • Problem 3: They don’t actually work more

There were plenty of comments talking about the lack of actual work getting done at Japanese companies. So really, it’s not about working long hours, but about being there for long hours.

 When I first lived in Japan I was having a conversation with an older Japanese guy who had lived and worked in Sydney, Australia. He told me that Japanese people will always tell you how hard their working life is, and how hard they work etc etc. But he said this was BS. He felt that the Australians he worked with worked much harder to get the job done by 5pm so they could go home. He said Japanese workers just dawdle and waste time and spend much longer in the office. I also often witnessed people sleeping at their desks when I worked in Japan – a sackable offence where I come from. (Tamarama)

Japanese workers would probably insist that they do work hard, but it seems like the meaning of “working hard” is measured differently in Japanese and foreign workplaces.

  • Problem 4: They “don’t know how to relax”

It often seems to foreigners that Japanese people have no time for anything outside of work, yet no one ever seems to go on strike to protest this state of affairs. Some people wonder if this is because Japanese people simply don’t know what to do with themselves in their free time.

From childhood their lives revolve around institutions- club, school, juku [cram school]. They have no idea what to do with their free time. In my childhood, my friends and I had hours/days/weeks of free time in which we learned to amuse ourselves. Lots of kids here are on “salaryman” schedules from a young age. 6am to 9pm – morning practice, school, after-school club, juku. (bgaudry)

  • Problem 5: Fear

Many people expressed the opinion that Japanese people are simply too scared to change the status quo and risk kicking up a fuss.

They need to work late trying to figure out what to do with all that time. Seriously, at the bottom line it is fear. Mainly, the fear that, if things aren’t successful, it won’t be because they weren’t putting in the hours. (yabits)

I think the economy and the fear of losing one’s job has a lot to do with it. Japan also has a long history of being a stationary culture. One’s life is defined by their occupation, which comes before family, hobbies, or other personal/private goals or endeavors. People don’t change career or move around all that much, therefore sacrificing your “other time” for work is not really seen as a big problem. (Thomas Proskow)

As a foreigner it may seem obvious that people just need to take a stand and go home when their contract states they can. However, it’s obviously a lot more complex than that, with pressure coming not only from fear of the judgement of coworkers and superiors, but also fear of changing a whole way of life you’ve been brought up with. After all, going your own way when everyone around you says differently can’t be easy.

  • Conclusion

During Japan’s economic golden years, the West looked to Japanese companies as a model for how to achieve economic growth. However, these days Japan’s working environment is often criticised by foreigners, and seen as detrimental in a fast-changing and globalising world. There is also concern for the workers, as well as frustration – surely no-one actually enjoys working these ridiculous hours, so why don’t they just say “enough is enough”? Looking from a foreign perspective, it seems easy enough, but the Japanese have a whole lifetime of cultural norms standing in their way. No one wants to be the one to go home early (i.e. on time), and give off the impression of not caring about the “group”, and you can be sure that those who do are talked about by their colleagues.

Working in a Japanese company as a foreigner can be endlessly frustrating, however we are also relatively free from the societal pressures that our coworkers experience, both consciously and subconsciously. From our position we have the ability to assess the negatives and embrace the positives. Maybe we can learn a little more about loyalty and being a team player, while showing our exhausted coworkers that there might be more to life than work.

Source: Madame Riri, Japan Today (quotes)
Images: The Runaway GuidePouch