Are the Japanese People Really Hard Working?

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Tadao Tomokiyo, Staff Writer

Japan has had a reputation for being a hard-working country. Extreme care and diligence is one of the things that Americans often associate with Japanese people, and it has been that way for a long time. However, amid constant movements across the globe to change work culture, some are starting to say that workers in Japan are being overworked. Japan’s positive reputation is suddenly starting to seem damaging to the country and its people. But is Japan’s reputation really true, or is it just another baseless American perception of a foreign country?

I have had the experience of being in school in both Japan and the United States, but my education in Japan has only gone through sixth grade, and I did not feel that school alone would be enough to evaluate the work culture for adults in Japan. So, to answer this question, I turned to my father, who has had experience working in both countries.

I didn’t even get to ask my first question when my father interjected. As I described the topic of the interview, he immediately made it clear that it would only make sense for this to be a discussion of history. To him, the notion of Japanese people being especially hard-working compared to the rest of the world seemed to be a thing of the past, and Japan’s reputation seemingly no longer applied. But as I continued, he started to understand where my question was coming from. In terms of actual work being done, his answer was somewhat surprising: it seemed like the United States was actually on the same level as Japan, if not ahead of it. The idea that Americans were getting, he explained, was from the expectations in the country. Whereas Americans might work until around five o’clock, a busy Japanese worker might stay until around ten—not because it is required, but because working late is a more common expectation. Yet even so, many of these people are not actually working. Combined with an often excessive amount of meetings, this contradiction, in my father’s opinion, is an example of inefficiency at Japanese workplaces.

With efficiency as a factor, a basic comparison of working hours did not seem very important. However, it is still something worth noting, and it turns out that working time in Japan is not much different than other countries. The OECD lists Japan’s working hours in 2020 as 1644, compared to 1779 in the United States. When I asked my father about working time in Japan, his answer agreed with the statistic. At Toshiba, where he worked, about one-third of his days (including weekends) seemed to be days off.

But that statistic seems to contradict the notion of late-night working in Japan. If people work until ten o’clock, how could total working time be less in Japan than in the United States? It turns out that there is a huge difference based upon the size of the company. Large companies like the one where my father worked tend to give a lot of days off and their workers are often not extremely busy. It is also at these companies that inefficiency starts to become a big problem.

In contrast, workers at smaller companies tend to be very busy. Not only do they have to make sure that their business does not collapse; they also have to work under expectations set forth by larger companies. If, for example, Toyota’s parts are being supplied by a small company, it might push that small company to make the parts even cheaper. With these seemingly impossible expectations, workers at the smaller companies are forced to work tirelessly to meet the goals of a larger company. It is also in the circumstances of these small companies that reports of work-related deaths start to make sense. Death from overworking happens all over the world, my father explains. But small companies are very common in Japan, and so overwork tends to be a bigger problem. And because so many of Japan’s companies are small, unions are less common. Without people to speak out against harsh labor policies, workers continue to work, building up stress and depriving themselves of sleep.

Still, as my father said in the very beginning, this conversation does not make as much sense now. While Japanese managers have historically expected their workers to work long hours, there has been a shift toward assessing productivity based on quantity rather than work hours. However, this leads to a new problem. With employees always trying to do the most work, a competition is created. In the end, everyone ends up doing more work.

It might seem like Japan’s work culture is full of problems. However, much of these expectations stem from Japan’s historical times. It has always been the case that Japanese people—much more than people in other countries—generally have a strong desire to do good work. As we have seen, this does have consequences: impossible expectations, high levels of stress, et cetera. But these things are changing. For example, it did not used to be very uncommon for someone to stay at work for a long period of time—my father’s friend once stayed at work for about a week—but now, government regulations would prevent such a thing. The COVID-19 pandemic has also prompted company executives to be more flexible with their workers (including, of course, allowing them to work from home). In a more radical move, the Japanese government has recently unveiled guidelines that, among other things, encourage companies to permit their staff to opt for a four-day work week.

That leaves us with the more cultural aspects of this. If you ever travel to Japan, you will notice a big change in the way that service workers treat you. When I flew to Japan, for example, I was shocked at how kind and organized they were. As an unaccompanied minor, I had to be taken through the airport by a worker for the airline. But when I stepped inside of the plane, there was then a flight attendant who took me through the front part of the cabin. She then passed the role to another flight attendant, who took me through the next part of the cabin—and so on. They had really figured out a good organizational system, and they were smiling the whole time. When I arrived at the airport, there was another person standing there. As I came in her direction, she bowed to me, doing the same for all of the other passengers. That was her sole job (at least for that period of time). It might seem like too much work for a useless purpose, but it really made the experience so much better. In Japan, work is work, and if there is a clear, helpful purpose in mind, people will do their best to achieve that goal.

This has been part of Japanese culture for a long time, and it continues to be ingrained in children’s heads. When I attended school in Japan, I noticed a stark difference in the way that the students behaved. Upon their arrival, they did not seem much different from typical American children: they played, they laughed, and they talked about random kid things. But as soon as the bell rang, they rushed to their seats, ready to focus on the upcoming lesson. They would rarely make side conversations while the teacher was talking, and they would be very attentive to the teacher. They would work very hard, too, whether they were copying down an extensive set of notes or writing a Japanese character over and over again. If a student behaved badly, the teacher would not be afraid to yell at them. That’s a more controversial subject, but the students did not just behave well to impress their teachers; even when the teacher was gone (which happened quite often), two designated students would come up to the front of the classroom and instruct the rest of the students themselves. Everyone’s behavior was no different from when the teacher was in the classroom. As soon as class was done, the students would get up and play as normal. But during class, students poured all of their effort into learning.

At school, students also learn about yarikata, or the way to do things. In Japan, people care a lot about the process of doing something rather than the result. There is a way to write characters, so if you make one stroke at the wrong time, that is considered incorrect (even if it produces a similar result). There is a way to eat lunch (rice last). I even had a teacher who stated that if we did not use a ruler for our fraction lines on a test, we would get no points for the problem. It might seem excessive, but it creates a mindset for everyone to produce their best work. It also creates traditions in Japan. The tea ceremony is a good example, which involves numerous steps for preparation and presentation and requires great attention to detail. It is also part of the Japanese mindset to never assume mastery. My aunt in Japan, a calligrapher, is constantly looking for ways to improve her work—even though it is already extraordinarily beautiful. In the minds of Japanese people, it is always within your power to be better at something; it just requires effort.

If this work culture doesn’t sound great to you, you might not be wrong. Japan does have a problem with overwork, even though it might be exaggerated in the United States. But as a result of globalization, activism, and the ongoing pandemic, change is in sight. And the long-standing mindset behind this culture is something that is truly incredible. If you go to Japan, you will understand. The expectation there is to contribute to the world by doing your best. If that requires a lot of work, so be it.