work ethic

Despite their hardworking image, are the Japanese really just as lazy as the rest of us?

Workers in Japan are often perceived by the rest of the world as possessing an extremely strong work ethic, which drives them to daily acts of unpaid overtime, selfless sacrifice of rightfully accrued holiday time, and occasionally even to karoushi, or death by overwork. So pervasive is this perception that the image of the exhausted salaryman splayed out across train carriage floors after a hard day’s work has become a sort of unofficial symbol of Japanese working life.

But what people who have actually worked in Japanese offices will tell you is that, while simply existing in the strict hierarchical system of a Japanese workplace can be an exhausting feat in and of itself, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody’s getting loads of work done. In fact, Japanese workers may be just as lazy as the rest of us. So how come everybody still thinks they work so hard?

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Roadworks video hints at why everything runs so smoothly in Japan

When people visit Japan, they often marvel at how great the service everywhere is. Trains run on time; a guy pops out of a little hatch like a station ninja when you’re struggling with a ticket vending machine; packages come precisely when they’re supposed to, and even if you miss them you can just call the driver on their mobile phone to arrange a new delivery time.

Day in, day out, stuff just works. And yet, unlike the many foreigners who live here, native Japanese take this all completely in their stride. Take this video, for example, which was taken by a foreigner living and uploaded to YouTube a couple of weeks ago…

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Snoozing here, there and everywhere: A unique sleeping habit of Japan

On the train to and from work, sitting down, standing up, at work, at school… in public places, people in Japan (including politicians) are nodding off whenever they can. It’s part of the scenery day and night in Tokyo, a “city that never sleeps”. At least, not for a full eight hours. Naps don’t count!

The Japanese word for nap (inemuri) comes from the combination of two words, iru (basically, being in a place or being present) and nemuri (sleep), and is often translated as “sleeping while present”. Of course, there are other words for nap such as utatane and hirune, with slightly different connotations, but inemuri seems to imply that you are sitting up, on the job, present and accounted for, but just happen to have passed out from sheer exhaustion.

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