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It’s the end of the fiscal year in Japan, which means that Japanese companies have been under a lot of pressure these days to get things done. This can cause long, stressful hours for the salarymen bustling in and out of work everyday. One such salaryman, Stu in Tokyo, a British expat and a vlogger, made a video depicting his work/life balance during this busy time.

While the video went viral and has brought the tireless life of a Japanese salaryman to mass media, is the negative impression as accurate as we conceive?

▼ The video has accumulated nearly 719,000 views in one week.

We start the week with Stu on Monday night on his way home from work at 11:20 PM, barely making the last train of the night. In the bottom right corner he keeps a tally of the number of hours he slept and worked throughout the week and by Monday evening, he’s already at 13.5 hours of work!

▼ By Tuesday night, he’d already racked up 27 hours of work.

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We also see him squeeze in his normal daily activities too, you know, those unnecessary hobbies, like eating, showering and working out. All work and no play makes Stu a dull a boy, right? Thankfully, for him and for us, Stu is able to make a little time for himself and his viewers during this busy season.

▼ After three days he’d worked as much as the average full-time employee is expected to work in a whole week.

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Just because he’d worked a full week’s worth of hours by Wednesday, does not mean he gets to relax. He works overtime another two days, then heads to his office for a full 10-hour work day on Saturday too.

▼ By the end of his grueling week, he’d worked 78 hours!

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Forget TGIF, Stu is no doubt more thankful for his Sundays!

Not all salarymen in Japan are lucky enough to have every Sunday off, but on the other hand, some get both weekend days for some R&R. The world of the Japanese companies can get pretty complex, but it all starts with the fact that people often, more or less, commit their lives to their companies from the time they’re hired (usually directly out of university) and remain there until retirement. While the system has definitely been changing more recently, for the most part this is how it’s done.

Back in November of last year, Patrick McKenzie, an expat entrepreneur who spent many years as a salaryman in Japanese companies, took to his blog to describe his experiences and knowledge about the lifestyle. He describes joining a company as, “You swear yourself to [the company], body and soul, and in return [the company] will isolate you from all risks.”

Body and soul?! Pretty much. As an employee of a Japanese company, McKenzie says, you “accept their crazy terms or expect never to rise in the ranks.” Crazy terms can include everything from working long hours like Stu, to picking up and moving across the country to a different branch at the drop of a hat. Then despite being given an average of 12-18 vacation/sick days a year, you’re expected not to take more than five total, and no more than two in a row (even if your spouse or parents pass away), as taking any more days off would show lack of commitment to your team and company. But hey, who needs a honeymoon longer than four days anyway?

▼ Cramming yourself into one of these packed trains everyday shows dedication to your company!

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Going back to overtime for a second, some salarymen work more than 90 hours a week! Granted, that is by no means the average. 50 hours over or only 5 hours over, sometimes the employees don’t even get paid, offering their extended hard work as “service overtime.” Service, in the Wasei-English form of the word, meaning, more or less, “free.” Patrick described it as,

“So your favorite restaurant might throw in a “service” desert once in a while or you might do 8 hours of ‘service’ overtime six nights a week for 15 years.”

One and the same, right? Again, this is not every situation, but it does happen. For the rest of the salarymen that would prefer to get paid for their time, overtime pay is structured so that different times of night get different amounts of pay (later, understandably, getting more). Recently, some companies have started making one day per week a mandatory no-overtime day and all employees must leave at the regularly scheduled time for work to stop.

▼ Look at all of these salarymen in the streets, must be a “no-overtime” day!

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Even the days when there is no overtime, mandatory or not, employees are often expected to go out to dinner or for drinks with their coworkers, bosses or business associates. The company is sometimes also your social life.

So why do employees do this? Well, remember the “isolate you from all risks” bit?

As you devote your life to the company, the company does take care of you. Employees often live in cheap employee housing, such as apartment buildings for single and even company-owned blocks of condos for families. They also often get stipends that cover commuting costs. The Human Resources departments often take care of taxes, pensions, and insurance matters for the employees too. If you get married or have a loss in the family, your bosses and coworkers will give you all kinds of support (except days off work), and many companies will also pay “celebratory bonuses” for major life events like getting married. They “take care of you like family.”

There is also the fact that you probably won’t be fired. If you’re a really terrible employee, you may get shipped off to some dark corner of the office doing mind-numbing work until you can’t take it anymore and quit, but you won’t be fired. If you do quit though, for being a bad employee or for other reasons, it may be hard to get into another company. As we said before, the system is changing, but as companies often hire their workers straight out of school, there isn’t much of a market for middle-aged job seekers. It’s not impossible though!

With these conditions, people were very curious as to why Stu would even work for a Japanese company.

▼ In a follow-up video, he takes the opportunity to explain himself a little bit.

The first half of the video is dedicated to his reaction to the success of the video, while in the second half he answers some FAQs.

▼ Stu, why would you do this to yourself?!

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He explains that he knew about the busy season coming into the job, so he can’t really complain, and since it’s only for three months of the year, he doesn’t really mind. He notes that outside of the busy season, his typical day is 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Not too bad, really.

▼ “OMG Do people really work that hard in Japan?”

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At this point Stu stresses that his particular industry is especially busy this time of year everywhere in the world, not just Japan. After giving a hats off to the hardest workers in the world, parents, he goes on to explain that yes, there are many people in Japan that work crazy hours, mentioning the term, karoshi, “death from overwork.” However, again, not all salarymen have this exhausting schedule all year-round, or even at all.

The working life of salarymen is often dependent on the industry, the company, the department and ultimately, the employee. So there are people who work insane hours and there are those who don’t. Lately, many people who’ve spent some time with Japanese companies, have decided to find jobs in foreign company’s with branches in Japan, where the work ethic expectations are not as demanding.

If you’ve worked as a salaryman in Japan or have similar work life outside of Japan, let us know what you think. If you’ve been dreaming of working in Japan, don’t let this scare you off, as Stu mentions in his follow-up video, “Japan is actually an awesome place.” We couldn’t agree more, Stu!

Sources: YouTube (Stu in Tokyo 1, 2) and Kalzumeus Software via LabaQ
Videos/Images: YouTube (Stu in Tokyo 1, 2), Flickr (SnippyHolloW, Arnaud DG)