I know someone who showed up to work 3 minutes late to his job in Japan. He lost an hour of vacation pay and then sat at a desk with nothing to do for the next 7 hours.
This can tell you a lot about Japan’s work ethic.
Labor on Paper
The Japanese work force has more vacation days (25) than the typical American (16). The workday on paper in my office is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. And yes, the country – the size of California – is amazingly still ranked third in the world for total economic horsepower.
But, the practical realities of things like vacation pay and work hours are a different matter. Anyone holding up Japan as a model for America’s workforce should come into any office in Japan at 8:30 p.m. and see if that’s what they want.
Death from Overwork
Most workers will stay in the office until the supervisor leaves. In turn, that supervisor won’t leave until his/her supervisor leaves. As a result, the Japanese workday is effectively 12-to-14-hour shifts, often followed by mandatory bouts of social drinking (it’s bad form to turn down the boss).
In America, this work week comes with overtime pay. No one I know is getting overtime pay. The extra 20 hours a week (and that doesn’t count Saturdays) is “voluntary,” since no one is asking anyone to stay behind.
Furthermore, vacation (nenkyu) and sick days (Byoukyuu), while available, are taboo. Sickness is Japan means a fever. For anything else, you wear a mask to protect your co-workers and you come to work. Of course, everyone has a generous number of sick days. They just don’t use them. In my office, if a worker has a fever, or a broken back, there’s an unwritten (always unwritten) rule that you use your vacation pay before you use your sick pay.
Similarly, you never go home from work, even if there’s nothing to do. That, too, is what your vacation days are for.
It’s Not All Bad
There are perks that we don’t have in America. Japan enjoys high rates of savings and comparatively low income disparity, though that seems to mean it’s better at hiding its poverty. And while nobody gets overtime, workers get annual or biannual windfall bonuses that meet or exceed their typical monthly salary. There’s tremendous job security in Japan, too, thanks to a system of lifetime employment.
But being able to afford a vacation is not a vacation.
It starts in high school, where kids go five days a week, on paper. But that excludes “vacation days” and Saturdays – during both of which many students are still in classrooms. School starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. (on paper) but special classes and activities can run as late as 9 p.m. and as early as two hours before the official day begins. This means the school day in Japan can run from about 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Which is why kids, like many of my coworkers, usually end up falling asleep at their desks. It’s the most common discipline problem in competitive schools, but it is also something of a national pastime. I have been amazed to see where people can sleep. On trains, in coffee shops, in fast food restaurants, on sidewalks. I’ve seen men sleeping while standing up outside of a convenience store. My train has passed by a man who took a nap on his bike while the train passed him.
They’re not homeless. They’re tired. Which is why a typical train ride in the city sounds like this:
This is a packed rush-hour train in a city of 1.3 million people.
As an American with experience in professional work environments, I’m familiar with salaried workers putting in more than their paper-contract hours, often without complaint. But the flip side is that, when there’s nothing left to do, you can leave.
In Japan, it seems like the goal is maximum participation. Everyone always has something to do, even if there’s nothing to do. Full participation ensures the lowest unemployment rate and best customer service in any industrialized nation on Earth.
But, I’m always expected to be grateful for my right to participate. I’m scolded for arriving 30 seconds late (it’s happened to me, once and never again) for a day where there is literally nothing for me to do. It’s like my presence proves that I have a purpose. If you can’t participate, you are useless – and that breaks up the ruse. Lose the ruse, and you challenge full employment for the entire country.
In Japan, 100% of success is other people showing up.
The Ungrateful American
Which is why many American workers in Japan are often shocked at the mandatory meetings they have to attend, where they understand little and give even less. In turn, I’m sure the Japanese are stunned by the laziness of their new American co-worker, who goes home at 5 p.m. and shows up at the start of the workday.
This stereotype – that foreigners lack the Japanese work ethic – contributes to a sense that the Japanese are distinctively capable of living in Japan.
A lifetime of social conditioning prepares Japanese natives for the burden of job expectations. Workers who have gone abroad and lived outside of the Japanese system are often incapable of readjusting to it, even after a year. Companies in the 1980s were notoriously wary of hiring native Japanese with foreign experience, because of the perceived differences in work attitudes, a bias that can still complicate life in modern Japan.
Western foreigners are excluded from many of these responsibilities and expectations. It can create a real imbalance, in that foreign workers, especially the ALT cohorts, can enjoy the perks of Japan’s brutal work ethic, customer service and full employment without any effort on their own end. In that sense, Japan strikes me as a great place to live, as long as you don’t need a real job.
This post, written soon after my arrival in Japan, has been subject to some much-deserved scrutiny. In retrospect, it was unnecessarily universalized from my own experience to cover the whole of Japan. I’ve edited it for accuracy. I’ve also removed some incorrect Japanese, which was quite embarrassing. Thanks to everyone who (politely) commented with corrections!