Saturday, October 29, 2016

A recipe for disaster: Japanese culture + unrestrained capitalism

Headline from USA Today: Japanese are working themselves to death--literally

The article above focuses on the recent death of 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi, who committed suicide after months of being forced to work ungodly hours at the major Japanese advertising firm Dentsu. This particular tragedy made the headlines perhaps only because the Japanese Department of Labor officially acknowledged that Takahashi's suicide indeed resulted from overwork, but an even greater tragedy is that in Japan, similar deaths routinely occur and then quietly get swept under the rug.

As I wrote in You Can't Spell Tokyo Without K.O.:
It’s difficult to exaggerate the extreme degree to which the Japanese are overworked. In English-speaking cultures, the phrase “worked to death” often occurs in the figurative sense of being extremely busy, but in Japan the equivalent phrase 過労死 (karōshi) only occurs in the literal sense, because it has become a nationwide crisis: every year a considerable number of Japanese employees actually die from overwork. Most instances of karōshi result not from any sort of back-breaking physical labor in hazardous working conditions like those of a coal miner, but from a gradual accumulation of anxiety and psychological stress that eats away at the employee day by day until culminating in death, often from heart attack or stroke, often before the age of forty. The unbearable stress of work also contributes to Japan’s epidemic of suicide, which, as of this writing, is the country’s leading cause of death in young adults.
Several factors contribute to Japan's epidemic of overwork. One major factor is summed up in the Japanese idiom 出る杭は打たれる (deru kui wa utareru), which translates to “the stake [or nail] that sticks out gets hammered down” — a stern reminder to lay low and avoid standing out.

Again, from You Can't Spell Tokyo Without K.O.:
Both on the micro and macro level, group cohesion and social order usually trump individual needs, which probably helps explain why the Japanese — even those in desperate situations such as poverty, addiction, or debt — rarely resort to crime that would victimize someone.
This mentality also helps explain why the Japanese — even those in desperate situations such as being worked to death — rarely revolt: the group is more important than the individual, so just keep quiet and don't rock the boat.

Another major factor is the rigid Japanese social hierarchy, in which subordinates literally and figuratively bow to the will of superiors. The corporate world mirrors and perhaps even intensifies this social hierarchy, such that subordinates rarely stand up for themselves or directly voice any discontent. When faced with inhumane work hours, many Japanese employees simply grit their teeth and slog it out, rather than pulling the brakes and pointing out the insanity of the situation.

A third factor stems from Japanese cultural values, in which hard work is widely considered a virtue, regardless of whether or not the work is actually meaningful or contributes to society (for example, farming vs. investment banking). Furthermore, unpleasant or difficult work often carries extra virtue, due to the perseverance and self-sacrifice required. Probably very few Japanese actually enjoy working eighty hours per week, but many Japanese revere that type of “hard work” as honorable.

A common sight in Tokyo: the overworked and exhausted salaryman

In Japanese culture, pride, shame, and saving face heavily regulate behavior and heavily contribute to Japan's epidemic of overwork — perhaps the main reason why more Japanese employees don't simply quit. To do so might reflect poorly on the employee, making him or her appear weak: everyone else can handle the workload, so why can't you? If Matsuri Takahashi had quit her job at Dentsu and applied elsewhere, most likely she would've had to explain why she quit her previous job, but very few Japanese companies would accept “literally being worked to death” as a valid reason.

Further contributing to the culture of overwork, the Japanese tend to be extremely thorough and unwavering in their standards. Whatever the goal — whether building cars or harvesting rice fields — they often strive for perfection. “Good enough” isn't good enough.

When these factors mix with unrestrained capitalism — where the never-ending goal is to make more and more money — it becomes a recipe for disaster: a population with perfectionist tendencies, terrified to lose face or appear weak, willing to disregard their own individual well-being for the sake of the group, rarely stepping out of line or questioning authority, all striving toward the impossible goal of infinite growth.

So what's the solution?

A sweeping cultural revolution would probably do the trick, though that seems unlikely.

Replacing capitalism with socialism (or some other sustainable system) would probably do the trick, though that also seems unlikely.

Perhaps the first and most important step is truly acknowledging the problem. Having been born and raised in a culture where very few people leave the office on time or take a real vacation, many Japanese simply concede such a fate without questioning it. 仕方が無い (shikata ga nai, “it can't be helped / that's just the way things are”) and other such fatalistic sentiments echo throughout Japan, but a quick look around the globe reveals that in most of the world, that's not the way things are. Work doesn't have to be so brutal.

A second step could be for Japanese employees to focus on working at foreign companies in Japan, where the workload tends to be more humane, and where people would be more likely to accept “literally being worked to death” as a valid excuse for quitting a previous job.

As for that sweeping cultural revolution, perhaps the Japanese could start by taking a lesson from the general Hawaiian work ethic, succinctly summed up by this restaurant's business hours:


  1. Illuminating article of the kind I'd expect to find at Huffington Post.

    1. I'm not super familiar with the Huffington Post or what type of reputation they have, but that sounds like a compliment to me, so I'll take it! Thanks! :-)

  2. Interesting write-up. Succinct and to the point. Did you have similar experiences in this work-heavy culture while you were living there? I have a few questions if you'll indulge me:

    1. Is this heavy workload expected of ALL employees in a company or just those at the bottom of the totem pole so to speak? Do entry-level positions tend to get worked harder than mid or upper management?

    2. So if 出る杭は打たれる is a thing, then how does one advance in a company? Simply work hard and hope that you get selected for promotions? How does one stand over as a prime candidate over other fellow employees working the same hours and providing similar results? Is networking and establishing personal relationships a more effective way to get promoted?

    3. So once you graduate from school and start working for a company, is it basically a lifelong commitment to that company or risk career suicide by quitting and applying to others? What happens if you're fired from your work? Do you simply get lucky and find another employer who doesn't mind, or do you switch careers entirely?

    4. Is the phrase "仕方が無い" similar to "しょがない”? Is the latter just a more colloquial or condensed version of the former? Currently I'm attempting to self-study Japanese, but it's difficult to separate how people actually communicate in Japan versus how the textbooks want you to communicate. Distinguishing between polite vs. casual vs. super formal has been a bizarre thing to try and untangle.

    1. Great questions. Yes, while I was living in Japan I worked in a typical Japanese office environment, and in many ways I lived the typical salaryman lifestyle.

      To answer your questions:

      1) The heavy workload is expected of pretty much all employees, though the ones at the bottom tend to get the worst of it. High-ranking employees still have to bow to the will of their superiors (business clients, shareholders, corporate headquarters, etc.)

      2) I'm speaking in extremely broad terms here, but typically one advances in a Japanese company not by standing out, but simply by having been there a long time, working the long hours and not rocking the boat. Of course nepotism and personal relationships also factor in, but when a position opens up because someone retired (or died from overwork), filling that spot is usually a seniority contest: those who have been there the longest get promoted.

      3) Historically, Japanese workers stayed with one company for their entire career, but that's not so true anymore. There are of course "acceptable" reasons to leave a job (for example, moving to a different part of town), but unfortunately "being overworked" is generally not acceptable. As far as Japanese companies firing a full-time employee, that's somewhat pretty rare. Strange as it may seem, on the books Japan actually has strong labor laws that protect employees, making most Japanese companies very hesitant to fire any full-time employee. (Firing part-time or contract employees is quite easy and done all the time.) But for whatever reason, those strong labor laws are rarely enforced when it comes to the workload. Japanese companies seem much more comfortable with the risk of overworking an employee, rather than the risk of firing an employee.

      4) 仕方が無い and しょうがない mean the same thing, but the latter is more casual and usually used in spoken conversation. 仕方が無い is more often seen in written form, not often used in spoken conversation. Japanese is full of nuances like this (and as you mentioned, the different politeness levels), though typically your point will get across even if you goof up these nuances. Most Japanese people don't expect foreigners to speak Japanese at all (and certainly not proper Japanese), so usually you get a free pass even if you commit some grave blunder.