Are Japanese working days really as long as we think in Europe?
My semester abroad in Tokyo was a mind-opening experience for me, starting with getting to know the very unique Japanese culture and ending with exploring the beautiful nature and cities in Japan. So, when people hear me raving about my time there, I often get the question: “Could you imagine living there for a few years?” Interestingly, this was also a topic I discussed with lots of friends I made during my stay in Japan, and most of them had the same answer to this question as me, “I would love to if it weren’t for this one issue…”
Of course, I am talking about the Japanese working culture, as living in Japan usually includes working there. These days, the depiction of Japanese working culture in the media can be quite distorted. Stories of people not taking any days off for years, of people having to do a great deal of unpaid overtime work, and of employees dying due to exhaustion at work can certainly instill a sense of fear or unease in us. However, when I talked to people in Japan, they often assured me that these stories are the exception rather than the norm and that the image Westerners have about working in Japan is overexaggerated and outdated. If you are a European student like me and are interested in an internship or perhaps even permanent employment in Japan, you might be wondering about the real facets of Japanese working life. To help clarify that, I want to give you my view on the question whether Japanese working times are really as long as we think in Europe.
Let’s start with some statistics…
In the following text, I will try to paint a realistic picture of the current working culture in Japan, supported by some data and cultural background information. First, we have a fact which may surprise some people: According to the Japanese Labor Law, only 40 hours of work per week is allowed, so the same amount as in most European countries. Beyond this, if you look at the country comparison of average working times, you will find Japan in between Italy and Canada in a middle position. So, do typical working hours in Japan not differ much from those in Europe? I am afraid that is not quite true...
Despite 40 hours a week being the legal recommendation, many Japanese workers can only dream of having a normal 9-5 workday. In many companies, there is an “untold rule” which expects people to work long (and often unproductive) hours of overtime. Even if an employee finishes all of his or her work for the day, he or she is expected to help co-workers or just stay at his desk and not leave before the supervisor leaves the office. The so-called “salarymen” in particular follow this practice excessively (In Japan, the term “salarymen” refers to ambitious employees who aim for a successful career and a high salary in the future). The Japanese see long hours as a sign of dedication and devotion rather than as the consequence of bad time management. Various statistics support this fact: Nearly 25% of the Japanese companies expect their workers to do at least 80 hours of monthly (and often unpaid) overtime. Furthermore, 22% of Japanese employees work 50 hours or more each week on average (compared to 6% in Spain).
So, how is it possible that the number of annual working hours in Japan is lower than in Italy, the US, and many other Western countries? This originates in the fact that many Japanese work part-time. Only about 60% of the employees are seishain (full-time and permanently employed). The other 40% might only work around 20 hours and decrease the average, while the seishain are delivering over 60 hours a week. Thus, long working days for full-time employees seem to be pretty common in many companies.
Karoshi - Japan has its own word for death by overwork
Another characteristic of the Japanese culture: On average, Japanese workers take not even 9 days off per year, despite their contract often allowing them more than double this number. Many employees feel guilty about taking days off (even when they are sick); they feel like they are not fulfilling their duty because their colleagues have to take care of their projects during their absence. But instead of boosting the company performance, the lack of vacation together with the long working hours lead to increasing health- and mental problems for the workers, especially at a higher age. The worst and probably most infamous phenomenon is called Karoshi, which (loosely translated) means overwork death. It describes a sudden death at work as a consequence of overwork or stress and is usually caused by heart problems or suicide.
Other problems caused by excessive working hours include the low productivity of an average worker or are family- or relationship-related (low birth rate etc.). For foreigners, it is not easy to understand why the Japanese generated and maintained this working culture despite its obvious problems, but if you have a few minutes and are interested in the cultural and historical background, I would encourage you to read the following article.
What statistics and media don’t tell you…
At this point you might think: So, the Japanese working times are exactly as bad as we think in Europe. While this can’t be completely denied, it is important to be clear about a few things the statistics and media don’t tell you: Many people with really excessive working hours are career-oriented white-collar workers who are highly motivated to impress their boss. This is something also not uncommon in Europe when you look at areas like consultancy, banking, or law. When we look at more “average” employees, in many cases, the working times will still be higher than in Europe, but not that much. One should also consider that Japanese workers (like Europeans) often spend a good amount of their time in the office chatting, laughing and bantering.
There are also different views Europeans and Japanese have on “working time.” Japanese people socialize a lot with their co-workers after a working day (e.g., having drinks together) and in contrast to Europe, it is expected (almost obligatory) to regularly join these gatherings. Japanese employees often include these social gatherings when talking about their working times, something we wouldn’t do in Europe where work and private gatherings with colleagues are strictly separated. Beyond this, Japanese workers tend to finish all work in their office, while Western workers often bring some of their work home (home office etc.). This also adds to the impression of far longer workings hours in Japan.
A better future coming?
The government already realized the problem of excessive working hours in the 70s and initiated measures to bring them down. Compared to 1980, the working hours of an average Japanese employee decreased by a quarter and are continuing to drop further. In 2018, the “Work Style Reform Law" was passed, which limits overtime, obliges a company to track an employee’s working time, and increases the obligatory number of days taken off per year.
In addition to governmental intervention, other factors might also contribute to changes in the working environment: The working environment gets more diverse, and international companies with foreign managers or many foreign employees might have a more relaxed working culture. They might be more flexible and focus more strongly on working results and less on the time you spend at the office. Furthermore, many younger workers, who are increasingly skeptical about the overworked path of older generations of salarymen, attach higher importance to work-life balance and family life nowadays. The problem of long working hours will not disappear overnight, but it seems that the Japanese working culture starts to pay greater attention to the employees’ health and private life, step by step.
So, what is the bottom line? I think three things are important to take away:
1. When you want to work in Japan, be aware of what will await you. In this blog article, I only discussed the issue of working hours, other elements of the working culture (communication style etc.), I haven’t even touched. If you are an ambitious recent graduate who wants to launch a career in Japan, be ready to work long hours and devote yourself to your company.
2. International companies with foreign managers and young staff usually don’t follow the traditional Japanese working customs as strictly. They might provide interesting job or internship opportunities.
3. The harsh working culture is improving slowly, but steadily. The young generation in particular values other things more than pursuing career goals and might bring a change of mindset in many companies.
(2) https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2018/01/08/the-countries-working-the-most- hours-every-year-infographic/