Japan has a rich history with long-standing cultural norms including politeness, discipline, and efficiency. Consequently, these social norms strongly influence the country’s workforce, resulting in an unreasonable amount of pressure placed upon workers. This strenuous work environment often leads to health issues and general unhappiness. However, with the help of government reforms and grassroots movements, Japan’s work culture is moving in a new direction.
Japanese work culture has been highly criticized for putting unbearable amounts of work-related stress and tension upon the employee. The Japanese word for death from overwork, “karoshi,” has been around since the 1970s (Question Japan, 2020). Even today, it is still a common occurrence for workers to commit suicide or suffer a heart attack due to stress. History and tradition play a large role in the unhealthy amounts of stress still prevalent in Japanese work culture.
The Edo period in Japan (1603 - 1876) was characterized by steady economic growth and a general feeling of peace within Japanese society. During this period, the majority of Japanese people followed the Bushido code of conduct, which demanded obedience, loyalty, and courage. After World War II, the code was somewhat forgotten, having been associated with the war, but in the 1980’s, during Japan’s economic boom, it reemerged once more and gained prominence. The Bushido code eventually came to represent a series of values for Japan’s workers, including diligence, a devotion to excellence, and most of all, an unconditional loyalty to one’s employer (StudyBreak, 2021). This unconditional loyalty has pushed some workers to unhealthy limits and even death. Despite few possibilities for promotion, unreasonable expectations are still placed on Japanese workers. Many employees work for 80 or more hours each week, with many of those hours considered unpaid overtime. There is an unspoken rule that “salarymen” (white collar workers) are required to work until after the boss leaves the office. Since chances of climbing the corporate ladder are based on work ethic and the employee's capabilities, there is pressure for new employees to go above and beyond set working hours to demonstrate their loyalty. Not adhering to this practice would diminish any chance of a promotion and most likely cause an employee to become an outcast at work as well
(Fig.1, Taking less time off means better chances for a promotion)
Even after the workday is over, workers are expected to spend their free time socializing with colleagues outside of work. The most common socializing activity is eating and drinking together at an “izakaya” (Japanese bar with food). Gathering with colleagues is a great opportunity to have fun and build relationships with co-workers, but more importantly it is another opportunity to climb the corporate ladder and build credibility with bosses. Thus, refusing an invitation would not only be considered rude and insensitive, but it would also give other colleagues a chance to move ahead in the race to demonstrate loyalty.
Japanese workers rarely change their jobs out of fear of changing a whole way of life. Most have been conditioned from early on to believe they have only one chance to succeed. As a result, after graduating from university, it is most common to get a job and work there until retirement. Losing a job can result in a strong feeling of dishonor towards the company, which in turn makes Japanese employees do anything they can to please their bosses. They have significantly attached their identities to their jobs, which means pretending to work even when there are no tasks, refusing to take breaks, and taking on unpaid overtime work. In addition, workers refrain from taking holidays either because their bosses do not take holidays or because they are afraid that it will disrupt the group harmony (Question Japan, 2020).
(Fig. 2, Joining an after work drinking party is a great way to show loyalty to the company)
This kind of work environment, where there is constant pressure to always be working with no time to relax, has taken a toll on the health and happiness of the Japanese people.
The reality is that the majority of Japanese workers cannot live up to the impossible standards set by the traditional Bushido code of conduct. This inability to succeed in the rat race has resulted in high levels of loneliness, shame, and depression across the country. To make matters worse, Japanese stoicism prevents most people from seeking help. Even if someone did seek out help, finding it or being taken seriously would be a challenge in itself. To put things in perspective, depression was not recognized as a legitimate medical condition in Japan until 1990. Even today, workers who take measures to improve their mental health are met with a level of stigma, and many are told to simply get some rest. As criticism grows and more high-profile stories of "karoshi" appear in the news, actions are being taken to reform Japanese work culture for the health of its people (Question Japan, 2020).
In 2018, the Japanese government passed the Work Style Reform Bill which attempts to modernize and improve Japan's archaic workstyle. It makes amendments to eight key labor laws, including capping excessive working hours to increase flexibility, as well as requiring employers to designate at least five days off work for staff with at least 10 days of unused leave (Worklife, 2020). The goal is to boost the rates of annual vacation time and create a new norm that encourages taking time off to refresh both mentally and physically. The bill also appeals to companies to encourage their employees to take time off from work and create a work environment more conscious of the importance of mental health. Japanese companies are encouraged to create a more open environment where workers feel comfortable discussing uncomfortable work styles, something which is still taboo in many traditional companies.
Since the bill passed, overtime hours have been cut by 15%, and the rates of paid holiday time have risen to 61%. In addition to government action, grassroots efforts to bring about change in work culture are also underway. One such event was a “memorial service” held in Osaka to “mourn” untaken holiday leave (Worklife, 2020). This event was led by a Buddhist priest to pay tribute to the lost dreams of Japan’s holiday-starved workforce. More than 300 lanterns were lit, each with workers’ messages describing their regret and heartbreak over not taking their full holiday quota over the years. Some included missing their child’s birthday party or not getting the chance to say goodbye to their grandparents before they died. This movement of rejecting longer working hours and outdated work styles is surging among younger Japanese workers.
Japan is a beautiful nation with a rich history. It sets an example of politeness, discipline, and efficiency on the world stage. Even though these long-standing cultural norms have helped Japan become a world power, the effect on the country’s workforce has created an unhealthy work-life balance. With the help of government reform and grassroots movements, however, Japan’s work culture is moving in the direction of improving employee health and increasing the overall happiness of Japanese workers.
Han, A. (2021, September 19) The Enduringly toxic work culture of Japan. Study breaks.
Retrieved from: https://studybreaks.com/thoughts/japan-work-culture/
Demetriou, D. (2020, January 18). How Japanese are putting an end to extreme work weeks. Worklife.
Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200114-how-the-japanese-are-putting-an-end-to-death-from-overwork
Sato, Y. (2020, October 27). Japan working culture – The old vs the new. Question Japan.
Cover image. [Japanese man working]. (n.d.). Karoshi. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/karoshi-japan-overwork-culture
Fig 1. [Japanese man working late]. (n.d.). Japanese Man Working Late. https://japanintercultural.com/free-resources/articles/why-do-japanese-work-such-long-hours/
Fig 2. [Japanese drinking]. (n.d.). Japanese Drinking. https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-data/h00458/tax-revenue-from-alcoholic-beverages-falling-as-aging-japan-drinks-less.html