How About an Honest Discussion on Japan’s Overwork Addiction?
Colten Nahrebeski & Donny Kimball
On September 30, 2016 the government announced that the suicide of ex-Dentsu employee Matsuri Takahashi was directly caused by excessive overwork. In the following weeks, both local and international press ran endless articles on the cause of death, ultimately forcing Dentsu to implement a “lights out” policy on October 25. Many angry readers called for the boycotting of Dentsu in the comments sections of online articles. Others cited how the inefficiencies of Japanese office culture and loyalty to the company kept employees chained to their seats. With Prime Minister Abe now looking to combat excessive overtime to bring Japan back into the competitive arena globally, the time has come to push for change and a better work-life balance for the beleaguered salary workforce.
Despite the media firestorm last year around Japan’s overtime culture that arose in the following months, most articles fail to address the underlying issues that give rise to long hours. As a result, much of the discourse has focused on corporations’ implicit involvement in such predicaments, rather than the paradigm shifts necessary to improve the work/life mindset present in Japanese business culture. Actually solving the problem at hand will require deep reevaluations regarding what it means to be a “good worker” in Japan. As Abe’s administration has hinted since the Dentsu fiasco, these changes are vital to more than just establishing a better workplace; they are in fact key to Japan’s economic future.
Before taking a proper look at the effects of excessive overtime and the fallout it has on the economy of Japan, it is imperative to first examine the culture which gave rise to long hours. Though the initial circumstances that gave rise to the practice no longer exist, the attitude towards commitment to one’s company very much remains the same. Without acknowledging where these cultural tendencies came from, Japan will never be able to implement true change. So where did the practice of excessive overtime begin?
Drawing a page from Japanese history, the culture of devotion to work at the expense of all else can be traced back to the feudal era. Indeed, the relationship between daimyo, or local warlords, and their samurai is not too different from that of the company towards the salaryman. As it was in feudal Japan, the qualities of stoicism and self-sacrifice are still very much de rigeur in present day office culture. For example, the current practice of not leaving before one’s superiors is rooted in the power dynamics between a daimyo and his retainers — loyalty was shown through utter devotion and a willingness even to sacrifice one’s own life for the leader. However, the influence of samurai culture alone does not fully explain why Japanese work the long hours they do in modern day Japan.
Perhaps the most immediate origins of today’s salaryman culture of overwork lie unsurprisingly in the years following the close of World War II. With the country devastated by bombings, and two cities lost to nuclear holocaust, Japanese men turned their zeal and patriotism towards rebuilding their nation from the ashes. Bolstered by American aid, and making the most of restored trade relations, Japan embraced its new pacifist post-war identity, and was able to transform a devastated infrastructure into one of the most efficient and advanced industrial hubs on the planet.
The immediate post-war period saw innovation like Sony’s transistor radio that changed the world’s relationship with music. Indeed this period of uber growth was characterized by many Japanese “world firsts” and other notable breakthroughs in management and production. Guided by the country’s cultural monozukuri legacy, Japan soon began offering extremely high quality electronics at unconventionally low prices. “Made in Japan” quickly became a brand that was highly sought after all over the world. Japan’s disruptive growth lasted well into the 1970’s when dual oil shocks sparked cultural shifts towards stability.
Much of this economic miracle was fueled by long working hours in service of Japan. Powered by their intense loyalty to the country, Japan’s corporate warriors slogged through endless days of overtime en route to a brighter future. Thanks to their tireless efforts, in only a few decades Japan was able to make the transition from a war-ravaged nation to one of the top economies in the world. In a mere thirty to forty years, Japan was able to transform itself into the economic power described in the Ezra Vogel’s famous work Japan as Number One through nothing but honest, hard work.
In exchange for the very souls of their workers, Japanese companies began offering packages with some fairly attractive points. Firms would provide job security for life, along with pensions and bonuses, while workers would pledge nearly every waking minute of their time to their place of work. Implicit in the deal was the fact that gender roles of the time stipulated that women stay home and raise the children. With the misses in charge of the household, the stoic salaryman was able to soldier on until the wee hours of the night, ever faithful to his real family, his employer and co-workers.
In the latter half of the 1980’s, following the Plaza Accord, abnormalities within the Japanese economy sparked a speculative asset price bubble of unprecedented proportions. Those who experienced this era first hand tell wild stories of lavish spending and rampant opulessence. During these years, it was not uncommon for workers to exhaust themselves on the job only to rally for after hours drinking at outrageously expensive hostess bars. For many people, the period was just one big, expensive party, and sleep was certainly not a priority. As University of Cambridge’s Dr. Brigitte Steger writes, “the lifestyle of this era is aptly summed up by a wildly popular advertising slogan of the time, extolling the benefits of an energy drink: ‘Can you battle through 24 hours? / Businessman! Businessman! Japanese businessman!’”
Though by the time of the bubble economy, Japan had already “made it” in terms of industrial recovery, the culture of overtime persisted as one generation of managers passed down the practice to the next. When Japan’s economy finally took a dive in the early 90s, Japan’s salarymen clung even tighter to their practice of working long hours. With threats of company-wide downsizings potentially looming, each employee sought to preserve whatever shards the shattered lifetime employment dream he could through displays of commitment and diligence. This of course meant committing as much “desk” time as possible while appearing to look endlessly busy.
While we do not intend to downplay the hard work that many employees doubtlessly invested in their companies both during and after the bursting of bubble, the fact remains that Japan in the 1990’s found itself with more bloat than financially viable. In Western working cultures this would mean (unfortunate) layoffs, but Japan’s labor laws, coupled with the lack of a mid-level job market, made a situation like this a nightmare for both employers and employees. Unable to rid itself of the staff that were no longer necessary in tight times, Japan Inc. found itself at the mercy of its binding lifetime employment pact, leading to bonus cuts, and an average salary that to this day has not risen significantly.
Even though in the present day the legalities of cutting staff have changed, the cultural corollaries of lifetime employment largely remain. Most domestic firms are averse to hiring mid-career talent and downsizing is viewed in an extremely negative light. This culture gives birth to lumbering office bureaucracies and a reluctance to enhance one’s skill set in anticipation of a career jump. Now more than twenty years into the post bubble economic recession, the Japanese are clinging ever-tightly to their overtime. In fact, youth are being indoctrinated from a very young age to the habit with morning practice, school, club activities and then juku (cram school). The question that no one is asking is what the cumulative cost of all these hours are, and by proxy, if there is any benefit in doing so. The hours are performed, but the necessary metrics for evaluation are missing.
With the advent of the internet in the latter half of the 1990’s, human communication around the world changed drastically. The power of computers, growing yearly by leaps and bounds, allowed businesses to perform at a level of efficiency never before seen in human history. As paper files became digital and communication between offices nearly instantaneous, the amount of work a human could complete in a given amount of time increased exponentially. And yet, Japanese workers remained in their offices, putting in the same hours as their predecessors, apparently immune to the winds of change that were shaping office practices elsewhere in the world.
The appearance of always working is very important in the Japanese workplace, and employees are acutely aware that in order to move up within the company, the bosses must see them actively working at all times, because this is currently the most common job performance metric. Even though a worker is now theoretically capable of completing a task in one hour that would have required a day’s work prior to modern technology, there is no incentive to complete it that quickly, because performance is often measured in hours worked. It is not unheard of for some employees to remain in the office until well past last train, or to head back to the office for more work even after a company drinking party just to give off the impression of being diligent.
Workers new to the office soon learn that “looking busy” is a necessary skill, and leaving on time will almost certainly hurt one’s chances of promotion, and may be cause for resentment from others in the very team-like atmosphere. It is not uncommon for bosses to stroll through the workplace after official hours, with the implicit message being that they are aware of who is going the extra mile. In western companies, the emphasis is on getting things done, and excessive overtime is the result of either poor time management or an unusually heavy workload.
The Japanese office is a reflection of Japanese society; relationships are hierarchical, action comes about through consensus, and form and procedure are highly valued. In tending to client accounts, sending emails at 2:00 AM or 3:00 AM is common. It is seen as dedication to the client, and therefore one’s work. What this means for the average office worker, though, is that the appearance of hard work or dedication to a project entails being endlessly available to work, and work can be performed at home or on the go with laptops or smartphones. In addition to overtime hours spent in the office that are not officially logged, employees are now under pressure to perform even away from the office, and almost certainly with no recognition of hours spent working.
With so many hours spent actively engaged in work tasks, the assumption would be that workers are producing more than their western counterparts. However, Japan produces less per hour than the OECD average and at only around 3/5 of the average productivity of the US. There are two potential factors at play here. Either the Japanese are merely making a show of working hard or they are focusing on unproductive tasks. In all likelihood, both are probably correct to some extent. “Unemployment” within companies is also a major contributing cause to this low productivity as staff are kept despite not contributing much of anything. This practice worked for Japan in the past but is no longer in tune with the realities of a global, interconnected market.
Though there are undoubtedly times where putting in long hours leads to excellent results, recent research indicates that the productivity returns from overclocking knowledge workers past the short term are questionable at best. An article in the Harvard Business Review summarizes this point: “In sum, the story of overwork is literally a story of diminishing returns: keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.” Though putting in the time can be necessary prior to a big launch or event, the research is clear in showing that output drops when this is the norm. Consultants at McKinsey Japan assert that achieving a brighter future for Japan will require that the country double its productivity but to do so Japan will need to eliminate practices that interfere with peak performance.
In light of a stagnating economy, reducing the practice of crippling overtime is essential to ushering in a new wave of Japan Inc. breakthroughs. But why? Paradoxical as it may seem, boosting Japan’s GDP will require employees to work less and sleep more. The importance of rest and leisure to high level performance on the job is currently undervalued . Rather than trying to squeeze more hours of employees — a behinds-in-chairs policy — firms need to instead get more value out of employees’ hours. In other words, efficiency is key, and raw “hours spent at work” is no longer a valid metric for weighing employee contribution.
Japanese workers are not getting enough shut eye, and over two-thirds of Japanese report not getting enough sleep especially on weeknights. The country has one of the lowest average of hours slept per night, clocking in at a dangerously short five hours and forty-five minutes. According to statistics in Arianna Huffington’s latest book The Sleep Revolution, a mere two weeks of sleeping less than six hours hampers mental performance to the extent of being awake 24 hours. The numbers show that a sleep deprived salaryman is about as functional as if he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.05% to 0.1% (basically legally intoxicated).
Recently, studies across the globe are citing the importance of a good night’s sleep. Though Silicon Valley CEO’s and Japanese managers might mistakenly believe otherwise, resting workers is critical to getting the most out of them on the job. Not only does efficiency drop when a worker is sleep deprived but decision making, memory, and communication abilities drop across the board when one is fatigued. Perhaps one of the most illustrative instances of this is the fact that 58% of all air traffic control incidents are the result of sleep deprivation. In the office, the effect may seem less profound, but a lack of sleep leads to multiple mistakes — which in turn necessitate re-doing much of the work. The extra time spent working in fact creates a whole new set of problems that could have been avoided with proper rest. A Yomiuri Shimbun article quotes accountant Ikuko Yamada, who professed that, “if I use a calculator when I’m sleepy, I have to double-check my work for fear of making mistakes, so it takes longer.”
Japan has long had a strange relationship with sleep. During the Edo period (1603–1868), samurai-scholars were often considered virtuous if they were found to be studying late into the night and then rising early. Today a salaryman is be seen as a hard worker if he passes out at his desk from exhaustion, a phenomenon known as inemuri or to sleep while being present. Why is it that dozing off on the job is the hallmark of hard work whereas trying to get adequate sleep is seen as a lack of dedication? Sleep is necessary for restoration and mental clarity, and yet many workers are not able to leave the office early enough to get a full night of rest, let alone pursue a hobby or spend time with family. The fundamental views on sleep will need to be addressed, as health, efficiency, and overall economic growth will suffer if Japanese employees are not guaranteed the time needed for this basic human function.
Sleep and health aside, continually overclocking employees has other demonstratively negative effects on the bottom line. Overworked staff have lower creativity, drive and output than the same worker who goes home on time and pursues hobbies, or spends time with family. The literature seems to suggest that there is a temporary increase in the amount of work that one can accomplish from putting in sixty hours a week. This short boost progressively tapers off over time however before quickly falling below the forty hour baseline. What this means is that long hours can be useful for short sprints to meet a deadline, but these bouts of overtime necessitate a recovery after the crunch period. The majority of Japanese workers on the other hand are so burned out that their productivity has tanked far below what their rested selves would be capable of.
Perhaps this is best illustrated by a Boston University Questrom School of Business study that shows managers could not tell the difference in output between employees who worked eighty hours a week and those who only worked forty. As any foreigner who has worked in a Japanese company can tell you, between endless smoke breaks, unnecessary meetings, and embarrassing levels of computer illiteracy, there are many areas to improve efficiency. The Japanese themselves are the first to voice their dissatisfaction with the long hours and sluggish decision making processes, but the complaints often hide a sense of pride at having more grit (and therefore virtue) than the rest of the world.
There are many wonderful benefits attributed to a Japanese working environment, such as lifetime employment, team integration, and a commitment to quality. These positives however all come with a hidden cost as the (seemingly) required long hours and mountains of meaningless paperwork translate directly into lost creativity, commitment quality and ultimately profit. It is sometimes said that the Japanese have an “Olympic spirit” — participation is what counts. Examined in this light, it’s easier to see the logic behind the endless overtime and eight hour meetings when an internal memo would have been sufficient. The important part is a display of dedication through “just being there” as it is ultimately MORE imperative to one’s career than actual results.
In a Japanese workplace integration is the goal, not productivity. This communal culture was critical to both wet-rice agriculture during feudal Japan, as well as the assembly line during the 1900’s. In an era of knowledge work however, the results of this ideology are speaking for themselves. The Japanese salaryman is so overwhelmed with the act of “being there” and report filing that creativity has severely suffered. As Ishida Kyohei, an associate at law firm Nihon Legal Network, states “In Japan, people believe that unpaid overtime is essential for growing Japan’s GDP, but innovation and creativity are the products of free time and leisure.”
With the average salaryman so overburdened, is it any surprise that Japan is falling behind in terms of innovation? In an excellent piece titled “In Praise of Slack,” Academy of Management Executive’s M. B. Lawson explains the importance of having some leeway on the job. “Increasingly complex systems and technologies require more, not less, time for monitoring and processing information.” Google’s engineers have famously been allowed to use 20% of their time in the office to pursue whatever project piqued their interest. In addition to increasing workplace satisfaction, this practice has lead to development of some of Google’s best apps (Gmail, for instance). Perhaps Georgetown University professor and deep work advocate Cal Newport stated it best: You Can Be Busy or Remarkable — But Not Both.
When examining the productivity of Japanese companies, one has to speculate if many firms would fold without the support of excessive unpaid overtime. Is it not strange that an executive like Doug Strain of computer company ESI can get the same productivity out of his staff in a 32 hour work-week whereas the Japanese salaryman needs 70 to 80 hours for the same work? Why is it that the rest of the world can finish their tasks at a high level, within acceptable time limits, while it takes the Japanese salaryman until last train? Is it not worrying that Japanese companies need to resort to brutal and often unpaid working hours just to keep their heads above water economically?
Perhaps Parkinson’s Law, or the notion that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” has a lot to do with Japan’s excessive overtime. Compared to nations where workers race to get everything done by 5:30 PM, a lot of Japanese offices are built around a culture that necessitates everyone spending excessive hours there instead of going home. On a given day, there are only so many “mission critical” tasks but when a salaryman doesn’t want to go home it’s easy to come up with things that need to be done. Progress towards less overtime will necessitate that Japan do some serious self-auditing on what’s actually getting done on the job. To quote Danish programer David Heinemeier Hansson (responsible for Basecamp and the popular Ruby on Rails web development), “it’s not about being eight hours in an office. It’s about increasing the quality of the hours that you spend.”
The ideologies and long work hours that powered Japan’s economic rise from the ashes of World War II are no longer relevant in 2017, a hyper-connected world. It’s time the country looks at breaking down some walls of this church of overtime. The sacrosanct tenets upon which Japan Inc. has allowed itself to be built are faltering, and the workers just want to go home. If Japan hopes to keep up industrially on the global stage, “we’ve always done it this way” or “it’s the Japanese way” will no longer suffice. Business practices are meant to change and evolve in a constant march forward, leaving archaic and ineffective methods by the wayside.
To add fire to this theory, it is the global game changers — disruptive and innovative — who now challenge Japan Inc.’s incumbents, pushing them against a wall bolstered only by sheer man-hours. In a global economy that espouses the values of “hyper-efficient” and “lean,” Japan risks slipping in a big way. Treating working time as an unlimited resource to be tapped without restraint risks not only productivity, but also the very lives of workers who find themselves suddenly with suicidal thoughts.
Of course not everyone is just wasting time on the job and there are indeed those with monumental workloads (such as was the case with the Dentsu suicide last year). For those actually stuck in the office, clocking out earlier will require upping their productivity on the job while simultaneously rewarding employees who do leave on time. This will likely entail culling things like pointless in-person meetings and instead focusing on managerial philosophies more in line with global best practices. Similarly, adopting more meaningful performance metrics than just the “hours worked” will help firms to understand the benefits of sending their staff home. As the reduction of overtime hours actually is financially in their best interest, Japanese companies need not wait for government policies to start.
In pursuit of accomplishing this goal there are some low hanging fruit that should be easy to remedy. Computer illiteracy, outdated technology, and pointless or unfocused meetings are unacceptable in top-tier firms. Many of Japan’s overtime woes could easily be reduced if its workers were better trained and equipped to work with technology and manage available time. Simply using more effective (and less elaborate) powerpoints to convey main ideas at meetings could potentially save thousands of man-hours a week at many companies. As well, in 2017 there is no excuse to be using Windows XP and software built for Internet Explorer. There is no rational justification for having a fifteen person face to face meeting that could have been handled via email (or better yet, a Slack or Asana chat).
While individual workers struggle in keeping up with advances in today’s technology, companies themselves are mired in their own problems. Unable to say no to the demands of clients, companies (especially ones like Dentsu) take on more work than financially makes sense, leading to unfavorable situations where long, unpaid hours are the only real to complete the workload. This consequence of the country’s omotenashi legacy sometimes creates dangerous working environments like the one that lead to the death of Matsuri Takahashi.
In a response to overwork and burnout in the advertising industry, Campaign Asia quotes Optia Partners Tryon Giuliani who argues, “clients often demand service and attention way beyond the scope of work agreed to.” Coupled with the aforementioned inability to use technology efficiently, there is just simply no way to get all of the work done in a reasonable amount of time. In not charging for additional work, companies cheat themselves out of the earnings they could use to hire more staff. This in turn leads to deadly situations where staff view burnout as a “badge of honor” rather than a serious cause for concern.
The overarching point to all of this is that there needs to be discussion about overwork and the associated negative effects. Currently, there is a “gaman and bear it” mindset that allows this system to remain unchanged. Enlightened executives can indeed elicit change from the boardroom, given enough confidence that the winds of change are beginning to blow. Looking at the massive successes Japan has collectively enjoyed from the post-war era onwards, it simply cannot be the case that Japan is incapable of adopting new systems and ideas into business culture. The powers that be are currently hearing only a murmur of discontent, easily ignored or played off as the complaints of outliers and the lazy. If society at large begins to discuss this issue in earnest, things can change. The salaryman may yet be able to leave on time and see his family or pursue a hobby. It begins with a conversation.
Vogel’s 1979 work, Japan as Number One: Lessons for America, argues that “when viewed globally, Japan is quite a good society.” In Japanese companies, one of the basic tenets of being a good employee is having an open discussion with one’s superiors; identify a problem, discuss it, and overcome it as a team. The issue of overwork is not necessarily a permanent one for Japan. While boundless enthusiasm in rebuilding the country once necessitated such practices, that time has passed. The worker of today need not be in the office as long as his father because technology has liberated him from the need to put in long hours. Given the right optimism, confidence, and movement en masse, things are bound to change for the better. Considering the economic arguments backing such a change, the companies who are swift to react will be among the first to reap the benefits of a happy, well rested, and creative workforce.
About the Authors
Originally from Canada, Colten Nahrebeski came to Tokyo with a background in automotive sales and small business. He worked in the Global HR department at a major Japanese auto parts manufacturer before looking to Flamingo to pursue his passion for understanding brands, people, and cultures through the lenses of semiotics and interpersonal relationships.
Donny Kimball is an American born PR and social media consultant based in Tokyo. After spending some of his most formative years in Shiga prefecture’s Hikone City, Donny has an intimate understanding of Japan and its history. Able to grasp the nuances between East and West, most of his career has been predicated on standing in the liminal space between cultures and bridging the divide. He currently provides consultations at Kyodo PR to a wide array of multi-national corporations.
This article was supported by the Flamingo Lens blog.