Every morning during my bicycle commute in Japan, I pass the white-gloved parking lot attendants of the local bank. As they double check for cars and wave me past, they offer a deep bow, toothy smile, and chipper "Ohayo gozaimasu!" (Good morning!). This often causes me to think about how this same scenario would play out in my homeland, the United States. At best, I imagine a half grin, a mutter, and a quick flick of the wrist gesturing me to hurry past. At worst, I imagine being completely ignored by the sleeping attendant and hit by an oncoming truck.
In stark contrast to the majority of wealthy nations, practically everyone in Japan takes pride in a job well done — no matter how menial the task. Tipping is not practiced but is considered insulting because most believe that they should not receive extra compensation for doing their jobs well: top-notch work is expected.
This belief in high quality work is an extremely admirable quality, yet it often tends toward compulsion, entailing costly consequences. There is little differentiation between quality and quantity of work in Japan. Thus, most Japanese believe that a job cannot be satisfactorily completed unless an ungodly amount of hours are dedicated to it. Middle school teacher Kumi Ikeda's typical workday is 13 hours, spanning from 8am to 9pm, but sometimes she stays as late as midnight. Ms. Ikeda explains, "I think I should go home earlier and refresh … but I must not neglect my job."
There is little differentiation between quality and quantity of work in Japan. Thus, most Japanese believe that a job cannot be satisfactorily completed unless an ungodly amount of hours are dedicated to it.
Fear of neglecting work or not putting in enough "face time" is incredibly common in Japan. Even after the clock has struck five and the day's tasks are completed, workers will stay at their desks and patiently wait until their superior leaves. This can take hours, especially when a worker's superior is likely waiting on his or her superior and so on up the hierarchy.
Long hours and high stress claim a costly toll. Over-compulsion for hard work is manifested in a unique Japanese word: karoshi. It means, "death from overwork". The National Defence Council for Victims of Karoshi estimates that 10,000 Japanese workers die from "work-related cardiovascular diseases" each year. Workers literally drop dead from heart failure after working hundreds of hours of overtime. Additionally, Japan is infamous for its record-breaking number of suicides — a significant number of which are attributed to stress from overwork.
Most workers, of course, do not die due to the stresses of work, but they suffer in other ways. Alcoholism, shabu (crystal meth) dependency, and divorce are common; children are left home alone for hours on end, and communities are dissolving.
Unfortunately, the dilemma of finding a work-life balance and the negative consequences that stem from failing to find this equilibrium have become all too familiar to most industrialized nations. While these adverse effects have caused many nations such as France, Germany, Britain, and South Korea to re-prioritise and scale back their working hours, my fellow countrymen are putting in more and more time at work. Once Americans are finally home, they are still attached to the office by the ever-present BlackBerry umbilical cord.
Though the Japanese may still be the world's workaholics, even they have been making progress and clocking fewer hours in recent years. This is especially true of the younger generation who witnessed the mistakes and experienced the neglect of their overambitious parents first hand.
Recently a Japanese acquaintance of mine requested a transfer from a very prestigious employer to a no-name one. When I was bidding him farewell, he offered me an unsolicited, but much appreciated explanation: "I have twin daughters who are five years old now. Currently, I leave home before they wake up and I return after they are in bed, but I would like to be around as they grow up."
Not only are parents struggling to find time with their children, but also adult children don't seem to be able to visit their aging parents. In lieu of sacrificing office hours, some Japanese have turned to agencies that send out actors who play the role of children and give their elderly relatives companionship.
The desires of children and parents to spend a few quality hours with loved each week — or even each day — are not unreasonable, but they do frequently interfere with the reality of work and the excessive amount of overtime expected.
Who really benefits, though?
From a strictly utilitarian viewpoint, employers would be wise to encourage their employees to have ample time to refresh themselves as research reveals that rested and happy workers are more productive workers. Human Resource specialist Ray Baumruk estimates that workers are from 5 to upwards of 20 percent more productive when companies introduce options such as flextime, telecommuting, and compressed workweeks. Furthermore, if employees are paid hourly, the employer can pay the employee for fewer hours and get more bang per buck. This is part of the logic behind several European nations moving towards a four-day workweek.
Employees, however, are not cogs that should be rested simply because the machine will run more smoothly that way. Rather, employees are also children, siblings, spouses, parents, friends, and neighbours who live in community with others. Wherever we live and whatever our careers — teachers, business people, or parking lot attendants — we should strive for excellence and integrity at work. As members of families and communities we must do the same. Work is much more than a job that provides a paycheck: it is an integral part of one's development as a person who lives in community with others.
Gradually the Japanese are waking up to these things.
Jennifer Van House Hutcheson is a freelance journalist living and working in Okayama, Japan.