Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Working in Japan

There's an article up on the Japan Times about a Chinese worker who recently died of 過労死 (karoshi; death by overworking). If you're unfamiliar with the story, or interested in exploited foreign workers in Japan, feel free to go have a read. For now, I just wanted to highlight what I considered to be a very interesting, though perhaps somewhat tangential point:

Westerners tend to link Japan's workaholic society today to "typically Japanese" traits such as deference to authority and respect for hierarchy, but Kawahito believes this is not the root cause of the problem.
"Japan's current work system is not part of traditional Japanese culture, but a modern phenomenon which developed in order to catch up with Europe and the U.S.," he said.
The postwar mentality of the Japanese people was that they had to work harder than everyone else, he explained. "Japan was completely defeated in World War II by the United States, so maybe Japanese people are afraid Japan will be defeated again, not militarily but economically."

I'm not sure that the author is 100% correct on this point, as it seems to me to be a somewhat blurry and difficult to understand issue (as are many parts of Japanese culture, to me anyway). This "catch-up" mentality could account for part of the reason why so many Japanese people work so much, but there are other, fundamentally linked behavioral patterns that it doesn't explain. And I emphasis "much" because while many Japanese people do work very hard, there is also a tendency to work long hours without actually doing much of substance.

The other behavioral patterns I'm talking about are in fact linked to deference to authority and respect for hierarchy. From what I've heard first-hand, it seems that a lot of Japanese people tend to work less out of a desire to serve the country or be productive than because they feel compelled to. Why? Pressure - both lateral and downward. In many cases, there are certain things that are just expected of you. "Why" doesn't matter. If you go home on time at 5:00, your peers will think you're either lazy or selfish. Lateral pressure.

In Japan, there is something called the sempai-kouhai (先輩後輩) system. Schools, clubs, companies - basically anything with an organizational structure employs it. Essentially it means that senior members (sempai) act as mentors to junior members (kohai). In return, these junior members are expected to treat their mentors with respect and a degree of deference. In other words, if your sempai asks you to come in to work on Saturday to help them finish a project they're working on, you do it. You had a date planned for Saturday? Better reschedule. Downward pressure.

Probably the most common example of this is the Japanese drinking party or 宴会 (enkai).
Image from: Gourmet Walker Kobe
Enkais can be a lot of fun; loosening up with your fellow soldiers in the trench, having a few beers, and hopefully forming a more cohesive bond with the people you see almost every day. While an occasional drinking party with your boss and coworkers can be a good time, for most Japanese people these are not optional, recreational activities. They are after work, but they are obligatory. I've heard from a couple of overworked Japanese that many young people don't like it, but it's just the way it is. Even if you're tired or sick, if your sempai invites you go to drinking after work, you go. "But what happens if you don't?" I asked. Apparently you become ostracized and will likely never be invited to another work-related social function. Talk about harsh.

In other words, deference to authority and respect for hierarchy are exactly why a lot of Japanese people work as much as they do.

On a more personal level, I think Yoshie's job is pretty good about this. It hasn't seemed (to me anyway) like she's really been pressured to do a lot of work-related "group activities" or work more than she decides she needs to. She does have other kinds of pressure, though. For one thing I think she is pushed to do too much for her customers. But that, perhaps, is a story for another time.

最近日本にいた中国人は過労死した。上のJapan Timesのリンクはそれについて記事リンクしてるが、ある部分に興味深いと思った。




  1. Some people drink tea or juice instead, but they still have to deal with their drunken coworkers (and sometimes take them home).

  2. Insert "female" between the words "drunken" and "coworkers" in your reply, and I may have to seriously look into this JET program.

  3. My close personal Japanese friend recently started working at an incredibly large company as a stereotypical salary woman. She went to training before starting. There she met many sempai. The company gave her cases and cases of beer, strongly encouraging her to drink with her sempai. Of course when she started working at her company for real she had to go to a different work enkai almost every week. Paul mentioned this system and what happens if you refuse to go, but he stopped short of saying WHY it happens. I think it's straight up brainwashing. When you drink with someone it brings you closer together. Companies that encourage their employees to routinely drink together are trying to make their employees feel closer to the company itself. They create loyalty, not through a good working environment, but through forced social drinking. It's true some people just stick to tea, but if you are a fresh junior employee you are under a lot of pressure to drink alcohol.

    It's like the Borg but with Asahi Super Dry.