Living to Work in Japan

As we pull into the parking garage, I see a line of women in matching dresses, one by each lane. As the vehicles pull-up, they each push the button, take the ticket, and hand it to the driver, who could have easily reached the button himself.

The photo shows the lean, but not the stagger

By our downtown Tokyo hotel at 9pm on a Tuesday night, we walk down the street of bars and restaurants, and drunken “salarymen,” expected to to socialize after work, are the main clientele. I wonder if they are taking a train home that night, or if in the morning they will be buying one of the cheap, clean dress shirts for sale in the convenience stores.

Craftsman in Kanazawa

I watch the artisan use chopsticks to lift out of the press the sheet of gold leaf, so thin he flattens it with a gentle waft of air. It is laid in a book, the page turned, and the process repeated with the next sheet. He trained over 10 years, and does this one step only for 6 hours a day.

High staffing levels in department stores.

Work is incredibly important in the Japanese culture. Despite changes in the last 30 years, employees still seem dedicated to their work, and companies to their employees. The level of employment is high: cosmetic and food counters have staff standing almost shoulder to shoulder, a line of older men seem to have no other job than to ensure the tourists coming off the buses stay on the correct side of the line on the sidewalk. There seems to be a higher level of pride in work than I am used to seeing.

Like many other things in Japan, it is carried to extremes. Few take even half of their vacation. As a young woman explained to me, “It doesn’t seem right to take time off when others are working.” Japan has the second best parental leave plans for men in the world, and almost none of them use it.

Tokyo downtown subway station

The culture of the “salaryman,” salaried white collared workers who show their dedication to their companies through unpaid overtime (100 hours a month is not uncommon), not leaving the office before their bossses or co-workers, nor taking holidays, has led to the coining of a word, “karoshi,” that means death by overwork.

Salary woman “uniform”

“Salary women” face, on top of the normal expectations, dress codes that include the wearing of high heels. The #KuToo movement — an amalgamation of #MeToo and the Japanese words for shoes, kutsu, and pain, kutsū — has raised awareness, but just this month the labour minister refused to support limiting the dress code. Although over 70% of women work, 70% of men do no housework or childcare, even if their wife has a job where she is expected to work overtime. This combination is blamed for high rates of suicide and low rates of childbirth.

Lunch break at the food fair

The trends are changing, but very slowly. There are now laws to limit overtime to 80 hours a month in most cases, and new legislation is coming out that will force people to take a minimum of 5 days of paid holidays annually. Younger men share housework and childcare at a much greater rate than their parents’ generation.

A small proportion of companies try to change the culture; they make it policy to limit the work day and encourage taking holidays. But as a friend in Tokyo told me, the self-image of Japanese as hard workers is deeply ingrained. When he goes to their office in Korea, he always works late into the evening, even though at home he leaves by 6 pm.

I’m not sure if I am retired, but I do know that if I work again, it will not be as hard as the Japanese!

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