The Shinkansen train system in Japan is, if nothing else, efficient. As many as fourteen trains run in each direction on a single line, every single hour, at 170 miles per hour. The average train delay is approximately ten seconds. It is claimed that not a single fatal accident has occurred from a Shinkansen collision or derailing, despite transporting nearly 300 million people a year.
On top of all that, you can drink beer on Shinkansen trains. Which is what I did at 10:32am on the Hikari 516 from Kyoto to Tokyo.
As I sipped on an Asahi (Super Dry!), watching the hills and towns and rivers zip by, I thought about how impressed my dad had been with the Japanese work ethic. Every store, every restaurant, every place of business we entered, we were greeted with smiles and undivided attention. Many times, employees would go out of their way to help us (like the time a cab driver stopped his car in the middle of traffic to chase me down and hand me my phone). My dad raved about how quick the service was, how we never had to wait more than a few seconds for anything.
I thought of this while I drank my beer, watching a Japanese man three rows ahead of me working on two iPads set up in front of him. He would tap furiously on one tablet, swivel his attention to the other, tap furiously on the second tablet, then switch back.
Tap tap tap. Swivel. Tap tap tap. Swivel.
Los japoneses no paran pa nada, is what my dad had said.
“The Japanese don’t stop for nothing.”
We were sitting on a bench at Tokyo Disneyland when he said that, waiting for my sisters and mom to hop off “It’s A Small World.” I was still suffering the effects of jet lag, so I opted to skip the ride, hoping to take a quick nap (FYI, you can’t nap at Tokyo Disneyland. As I was dozing off, a cast member tapped my shoulder and sternly told me “Sir, so sorry, you can no sleep here,” to which I responded with “arigato gozaimasu.”)
Although trash cans were few and far in between, the park was spotless. Disneyland employees were constantly picking up even the smallest pieces of debris.
In the span of five minutes, we watched them immediately sweep up anything that touched the ground. A can of coffee. A spare popcorn kernel. A half-empty bottle of Pocari Sweat which, despite its name, is not the sweat of a man named Pocari, but instead a Japanese sports drink (essentially a watered-down grapefruit-flavored Gatorade). The moment something was dropped, a cast member was there with a broom and standing dust pan. They’d slam the dust pan down, flick the trash in, then move on to the next thing. Clank, sweep, swivel. Clank, sweep, swivel.
Estos cabrones si son muy chingones, my dad marveled.
I said nothing and closed my eyes.
My dad had reason for admiring their work ethic. His is similar. When he came to the U.S. from Mexico, he worked himself to the bone as a janitor before scraping together enough cash to start his own janitorial business, then working himself to the bone marrow to build up his enterprise. He then branched out into real estate, amassing a small fortune with some well-timed purchases. My pops is the embodiment of the American Dream. If you work hard enough, things will happen. In the Japanese, he saw himself grinding.
Game recognize game, as they say.
What they don’t say is that game doesn’t recognize the downsides to the long and grueling hustle.
Long hours are the norm at many companies in Japan. So much so that, in June of this year, a law was passed capping overtime at 100 hours a month (which still allows for an easy, breezy 65-hour work week). This workaholic mentality has led to many societal issues ranging from chronic fatigue to anxiety to suicide. The Japanese even have a word for death from overwork: karoshi.
My dad hasn’t worked himself to death, but he suffered from a different type of karoshi. His karoshi was being gone for weeks at a time, on work trips that took him away from his family, missing out on birthdays and parent-teacher conferences and graduations, watching his children grow from a distance.
When my youngest sister first started speaking, she gave my dad the nickname Chato. No one knows why she called him that, but the nickname stuck.
His karoshi is that he is not “dad” or “father” or papa to any of us. Only Chato. A man we vaguely know, a man who has lived in our house, occupied the same rooms, the same spaces, but not the same memories. He was there, and yet he wasn’t.
It feels offensive to criticize the hard work of your parents, especially when your parents have given so much. Words that swirl around my mind as I write this: ungrateful, self-centered, dense. But no amount of money is a suitable replacement for a father. And while I appreciate his sacrifice, at times I wonder how much of a sacrifice it really was.
Early on in my career, I had a boss who would work long hours intentionally, who would stay late so he wouldn’t have to go home.
“Yeah, sorry hon, can’t make it tonight,” he’d say over the phone while swirling a glass of red wine. “Gotta work late.”
Chato once told me he was happiest when he was working.
Is it really a sacrifice if you don’t really mind?
I thought of this on the Hikari 516 from Kyoto to Tokyo, watching the Japanese man work on two tablets at the same time (Tap, tap, tap. Swivel). I wondered how many Little League games had been missed to ensure the Shinkansen ran on time, how many birthdays skipped, how many anniversaries forgotten.
I thought of my father. And I thought of my son. How I get irrationally upset if I have to leave work a minute past 5:30. How I watch videos of him while I’m at the office, annoyed that I have to miss out on seeing him grow because I have to revise copy for a social media deck. How even if the daily grind sucks the joy out of me, it’s instantly put back when I arrive home and hear my two-year old kid shout “Dada!” and grab my leg, as if he hadn’t seen me in months.
Success asks a lot of you. It requires sacrifice and tough decisions and giving up on certain lives you may (or may not) have wanted to live. And as I sipped my beer on the bullet train traveling 170 miles per hour, I wondered if Chato thought it was worth it.