A few years ago, I was driving through central London with a TV production crew from Japan. We were on our way back to the IBC after a very successful afternoon's filming, to send the footage by satellite on to head office. It must have been about 5pm, with bars already overflowing with office workers celebrating the end of another working week, and the beginning of their weekend. My camera guy, marvelling at the crowds, turned to me and said "Shouldn't they all be at work? It's barely 5 o'clock!"
I explained as best I could how here it is quite common for offices to shut slightly earlier on Fridays during the summer. "Life here seems like one big holiday," he mused, somewhat wistfully. "I think in Japan we work a lot harder."
I left it at that, neither agreeing with him nor disagreeing with him. I think if you asked most English people what they knew about Japanese working culture, they'd say something along the lines of "I hear they work really hard", but in reality it's rather more complex than that.
In a recent article by The Washington Post, attention was drawn to the word "Karōshi" (過労死, literally “overworking death”) which can be registered as an official cause of death on a death certificate in Japan.
To many of us in the UK, it would seem pretty ridiculous that a person might die from overwork. Sure, there are a few top-level high pressure jobs where people might suffer physically as a result of the various pressures they are under, but I would submit that this is very much the exception.
We are very prone to think of Japan as a very "advanced" society, with gadgets we could only dream of and home to cities like Tokyo with her horizon-spanning skyscrapers. Under this veneer of superficial shine and fluorescent glory, however, lingers an ancient culture that still drives many of the decisions made by people in all aspects of their life, including work. It is of course hard to generalise about why overwork could be such a particular problem for Japan, but there are a few reasons why it is perhaps less surprising a social phenomenon than some might think.
Consider the fact that this is a culture where many men will leave their home by the first train, and arrive home by the last train, leading lives almost completely independent of their wives. This leads to a social phenomenon identified by Nobuo Kurokawa and referred to as Retired Husband Syndrome, whereby women begin to display signs of physical illness and depression as their husband reaches, or approaches, retirement.
Lots of people would say that culture dictates language, but I would say that this relationship is far more symbiotic than that. Japanese is a language that relies on the people speaking it being constantly aware of where they figure in the current hierarchy, and in which you assert that position by the words you choose – you in fact cannot use a verb without asserting your position (and implying that of the person you are talking to).
Hierarchy, and your position within it, is very important across society, and this is particularly the case in a work environment. If someone considered “above” you in a work environment asks you to do something, you are obliged to do it – so if your boss invites you for drinks after work, whatever your plans might have been, you have to go. If he implies you should probably do some more overtime, the subtext is that you should definitely do more overtime.
The culture of long working hours becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy too. Standing out from the crowd is one of the riskiest things you can do in the context of Japanese society (just ask a gay person, or a non-Japanese person, for instance), so if you are in an office and everyone is working overtime, then you are very likely to do it too – whether or not you actually have work that you need to do.
Over the past decade in particular, there have been various initiatives both by the government and corporations to improve the situation when it comes to working hours in general in Japan, and “work-life balance” (a word conspicuously absent in that particular lexicon). The problem with these, I think, is that they have very much been presented as optional, and so people are reluctant to “opt in”, for fear of being thought of as lazy, and not pulling their weight. In the gold-watch culture that still exists, the people you work with are quite possibly the people you will be working with for the rest of your professional life, so of course you want to foster good relationships with them, with a view hopefully to moving gradually up the hierarchy.
Unless decisions are taken that tackle the overtime martyr culture head on – not with superficial measures but with solid attempts to effect a real cultural shift, from within – then results will continue to be disappointing and culture will not change. Karōshi will only cease to be a problem when the word itself has been deemed irrelevant.
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