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Random thoughts on the working environment in Japan

This entry was posted by on Thursday, 15 December, 2005 at

Well first of all, this post will probably be a bit unstructured because I have been thinking about this for a long time, and it sort of spans over a wide range of issues regarding working, culture, and traditions in Japan. Bear with me, there might be a point hidden somewhere!

You all know how the Japanese working environment is, I guess. In short, Japanese seem to *live* for work. They work 12 hours a day and often engage in work-related activities even after that before coming home exhausted. Lathe, Rinse, Repeat. Well, when I say “live for work” I do not mean in the Western sense of the word, i.e. in general Japanese do not seem to love their work, or have a great spiritual or inspirational leader to follow, or feel a great sense of shared vision to fulfill or so. No, when I say the Japanese live for work, they do simply that. They work and since they have no time for anything else, work becomes life; life = work.

Simply exhausted

Where does this extreme work perseverence and company loyalty come from? I think some of it is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture of honoring your elders and leaders. However, I think mainly it stems from a much earlier time, the Post WWII period when Japan made a huge shared effort to rebuild the country back to its former glory days. It seemed that everyone was willing to draw their straw to the stack so to speak. All men gave from their spare time and put in hours after hours at the factory or office, without asking for much in return. The women stayed home and took care of the household and children, since the men where never home. This immense collective effort helped bring Japan back on its feet and eventually made it to an industrial and financial behemoth which kept moving full steam ahead well into the 1980s and 1990s. So this incredible pressure to work a lot comes from the pressure to rebuild Japan. However, somewhere along the way I think both a) it wasn’t needed anymore, and b) people got tired of constantly working. Somehow this coupled with some outer factors led to the big bubble and later recession in Japan.

Anyway, moving quickly ahead to present day Japan, nothing much has changed! People are still collectively putting in a massive amount of work hours for the good of the company, out of respect for the bosses, just out of habit…. Now, this I would like to connect to another problem and a topic which has gotten some attention recently, namely the fact that there are still so few women in the workplace here in Japan. Sure, some is a relic from the post-war days when the women did their share of community effort by taking care of the household, but I think some of it also is the fact that women to a lesser extent accepts being forced to sacrifice their spare time for work to the extent that their male counterparts are. Of course there are exceptions to this, but in general I think women here in Japan value their social life and free time more than the men, and will rather quit their jobs than take it anymore. Why do the drastic thing and quit? Why not demand lesser work hours etc? Well, it’s hard when the system is so deeply rooted in everyone’s minds. But some people do it. A lot of women are temporary or part time workers and can choose more freely how long they work. Some people say it’s a negative sign that so many Japanese women are working as temps and part timers and not as regular employees – but I think that in many cases, it’s a conscious choice so that they can move freely in sort of a separate work environment, where the work loads and expectancies are lower, and probably, quality of life and happiness are higher.

One Response to “Random thoughts on the working environment in Japan”

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