There is one question often asked from my foreign guests and friends and it is about “overworking” by Japanese people. Unfortunately, I have to say that “Yes, we do” as the answer for that. Although it depends on each company and industry to some extent, Japanese are still overworking compared with workers in other countries overall. Some people indicate that “Japanese are workaholic!”, but I think there is nobody who prefer to be workaholic by him / herself. We don’t want to do, but we are forced to do so by companies and under the situations. At least, I prefer not to work too hard even though I am offered a wonderful amount of salary.
Why we Japanese worked so hard!?
After the defeat of World War II, Japanese worked very hard to recover from the damage, as a result, we became one of the great economic powers in the world. When my parents’ generations were in the prime of life in 1970’s & 1980’s, they could be energetic to work longer because the more they worked, the better Japanese economy and their standard of living. Most of companies could pay overtime payment and bonuses equivalent to a few months’ pay twice a year, so that there were no doubt to work harder and longer for Japanese people who could receive some certain rewards.
I remembered the TV commercial of an energy drink called “Regain” with a lyrics “Can you battle for 24 hours at workplace, Japanese business men??” when we were in economic bubbles in 1990’s. I felt the commercial seemed so energetic and gave us positive image for work at that time, but it sounds funny when I listen to it again now. Of course, it is impossible to continue work all day long without any rest, but some people actually did at that time.
What was happened in our society after finishing economic bubbles?
After the collapse of economic bubbles, however, Japanese economy has stagnated for a long time and our standard of living also hasn’t improved, rather declined although we work harder. Moreover, the lifetime employment and seniority systems which used to be mainstream in Japanese companies has already faded away along following global standard in these 20 years. Besides, companies begun to emphasize efficiency and productivity, so that we sometimes have to work harder than before in order to keeping our position and doing lots of different works on our own although companies no longer have power to pay their employees for additional overwork. It seems to me that our custom of working for long hours has just remained without gaining enough compensation of work…
Especially, the numbers and length of holidays of Japanese workers are less and short compared with that of other countries. I heard we have much more national holidays then other countries, however, we are generally provided 10 paid-holidays for the first year by companies. (Then, a holiday will be added every year and the maximum is 20 days a year). Although some companies have provided paid sick leave to employees in these days, but most of us cover the absence due to sickness by using paid-holidays. I just remembered my boss scolded me that I should keep my holidays for my sickness when I asked him whether I can take my paid-holidays for my private matter. (To make matters worse, he got angry when I used my holidays due to sickness and he criticized me on my lack of guts…guts? It is nothing to do with catching a cold! Some Japanese really like the theory of guts…)
Continue to talk about holidays, we can get summer holidays for successive 10 days at most connecting with weekends. If you can get successive 2 weeks holidays in Japan, we can say that your company is a “employee-friendly company”. Surprisingly, my guests who I took care of in the past got 2-3 weeks holidays on average to visit to Japan, and some of them can get a month holidays every year!! If we want to get a month holidays, we may need to leave our workplace first. I am currently working for European-based company in Japan as a part-time worker. The staffs in headquarters and other European countries take long vacations in summer for a few weeks. However, Japanese staffs seem working harder and we can take just 1 week holidays despite belong to the same company. Does it mean European can work more efficiently and Japanese can’t do that ?? We must also be able to do like them! But why ???
Our thinking of how to work also has changed gradually, in particular, among young generations. They are eager to keep a good balance between their work and private, so that would like to join companies which can provide them enough holidays and less overworking. It means that they work hard in order to fulfill their work, but they will not work too hard in such a way to dedicate their life for companies anymore.
Working long hours no longer make us happier than ever
Perhaps, people in middle age like my generation are facing with hardship and heavier burdens at workplace. The most of them are in the middle management positions taking responsibilities for their teams and departments, receiving some pressure from both their bosses and subordinates… It is also other social issues that there are certain amount of business persons in the middle ages who have suffered from serious mental disorder due to too much pressure, overworking and burning out, which sometimes leads to “Karo-shi (The death due to too much working”) . Some people had endured until their situation got worst and/or mental breakdown. In fact, Karo-shi doesn’t happen quite often, however, it seems to me that Japanese temperament such as diligence, collectivism and caring for other’s thinking make us difficult to escape from such harsh situations.
In this era when long hours working has not necessarily make us happier and richer, we have noticed the necessity of changing our way of thinking how we work. As for me, I used to work harder and for longer hours until midnight when I was in 30’s because I believed such a work style brings me better income and a full life, however, I noticed that this work style didn’t always make me happy and need to change my mind after becoming ill due to hard work. Now, I am wondering what I am going to work for and what kind of work style makes me happier and fulfill.
Telling you for avoiding your misunderstanding, the government and companies are trying to change our work environment under the name of “Reformation of work style” apart from it will be effective or not. I hope the era will come that we are never called “workaholic” from people in the world in the near future…
Reference information of overworking in Japan: