Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Why Japanese People??" Because Overwork Means You're a Good Person

The line is from comedian Atsugiri Jason--an American in the Japanese show biz. He uses it to poke at logical inconsistencies in things like Japanese kanji or omotenashi (hospitality culture). He's pretty ridiculous, but it's true us foreigners all have moments where we want to ask why? when the logic for certain Japanese behaviors escapes us, and our values are so different we can't connect the dots without an explanation.

When Yuya and I were back in the States this past May, we talked about Japan, and we were asked why. Why do Japanese people work such long hours? Why don't they go home? But Yuya could only say, "I want to ask the same question myself!"

The first year and a half we were married, Yuya didn't come home until past 11:00 pm. Every day. Why? What could possibly demand 4-6 hours of overtime every day?

We had a variety of answers. A lot of major Japanese companies prefer to only hire the bare minimum. If the workload fluctuates, 3 people could be expected to do the work of 10 (as in my husband's case). The phone might ring off the hook all day, leaving no time to do daily tasks. The formal registers of Japanese sometimes remind me of "Old Entish" in The Lord of the Rings. It takes a long time to say anything, true for phone calls and business emails. In Japanese culture, staying late is a way to show your dedication to your work. It might be a necessary step to securing that promotion. Japanese people also take a long time to have meetings. Yuya's were more like weekly 3-hour harassment sessions from his narcissistic, psychotic boss. So glad he got out of there. Even in normal meetings, the method of information sharing often involves passing out a handout, or looking at a Powerpoint, and then one representative reading it all word-for-word aloud, slowly. New information comes up, if at all, in the drawn-out discussions that follow. Talk about agonizing. It's the same story at our church. Since Yuya has become something like a deacon, he has to go to weekly Sunday meetings. And they last for hours! Every time!

No Japanese people I've talked to personally like any of this, by the way. As a foreigner, I'm outside the behavioral code of tatemae (polite exterior) and at both church and work often am the recipient of grumbles from the Japanese around me, "Not another meeting! Give me a break..."

So my why remains. Why do Japanese people continue to engage in and perpetuate that which they clearly dislike? What motivates them? Selfless individual sacrifice for the good of the group, because this is a collective culture? Hm, too simplistic. Japanese people are humans too, deep down they must be as selfish as me. The self-sacrifice must then also be in the end self-serving. To be well thought-of by others, to protect one's membership status in the organization, to avoid the threat of being left out, is certainly a very big motivator.

Then I read a Japanese article about severe stress in the workplace and the guilt men can feel for being made to feel useless. Guilt is the internal feeling of having morally trespassed or hurt another person. Shame, on the other hand, is associated with how others around you judge your outward behavior. It's easy to see how behavior in Japan is often regulated by shame, so how is guilt a motivator to put up with long hours and lack of personal down time? 

The article used the example of a Chinese and a Japanese company employee confronted with the situation of promising to meet a friend visiting from out of town, when urgent work suddenly comes up. The Chinese person would feel much more guilt turning down the friend than they would declining to help out at work. The Japanese worker, on the other hand, would feel more guilt leaving the office in a pinch than they would breaking the promise to 
hang out. The reason being, the Chinese have been conditioned to feel guilt about hurting the feelings of individuals with whom one has close ties. The Japanese have been conditioned to feel guilt about hurting the organization with which they have close ties. I like the word "organization" better than "group" by the way. As a translation of the Japanese word 組織 it suggests what we find in Japanese groups anyway: structure and purpose. 

Could it be that when people are evaluated based on their commitment to roles in a shame society, joining the organization in its activities becomes cast as a moral good? Being unable or unwilling to perform with everyone is a cause for guilt--with no one to blame for it but oneself. This guilt, and the acceptance of all-consuming dedication to work/organization, is carefully taught to the Japanese from elementary school. Chicken or egg? Is the labor force is the way it is because of the educational system, or is it the other way around? (This post goes into more of what I know about Japanese education as it relates to work, and includes a Japanese TV commercial that I think proves my point). 

Suddenly a lot of things made sense. People simply feel guilty bowing out of work first or leaving meetings before they're adjourned, for not performing up to par. I, on the other hand, like the Chinese worker in the example, have very little guilt associated with organizations. That's why I don't fit, I thought. This explains why I don't feel bad at all skipping church activities to spend time with Yuya. The world will go on just fine without me. I would feel more guilty about neglecting my marriage (a private matter) than duties at church or work (public matters). However, I'm probably least guilty when money or work is involved. My taking 5 paid leave days in a row might cause some corporate headaches, but I would feel much more guilt disappointing my family and cancelling the trip home than I felt causing "trouble" for my coworkers and students (why I should probably never try to start my own business). Yuya often mentions the shocking video footage of the Lehman bankruptcy, when CEOs and staff left the building throwing their hands in the air dismissively, some even smiling. No looks of guilt, no apologies or remorse that would have been a matter of course in Japan. 

This lack of guilt towards what should be my circle is an immense social handicap, I realize. Without it I'm not motivated enough most times to deny myself and show up, and thereby earn the rank of a "good, reliable person." I remain at best "dry" and at worst, "selfish." Without even thinking I decline to attend functions that a "good" Japanese person would understand at once are not optional. I was educated to never feel guilty for having more, less, or different abilities than someone, so I rarely feel guilt about job performance either. Underlying values are simply too different.

That said, of course, all Japanese people are on a spectrum when it comes to how dedicated they are to 組織。Some are more or less sensitive than others. With each new generation things are changing, but incrementally. Once, a member of a certain organization received strict criticism for some disloyal behaviors. I didn't think this person was being so odd, until I thought of how "un-Japanese" the behaviors were. I couldn't help thinking us foreigners do similar things all the time, and get away with it! There's a privilege that comes with lower social expectations, I guess, as well as a loneliness, even if no guilt. I suppose that is the loneliness a lot of Japanese try to avoid by spending time, life's most precious commodity, so generously on organizational membership.


Here is the Japanese article I mention in the post. Unfortunately it was removed from the site I originally read it on and I could only find it on this spammy site. I think it wants you to sign up to read the whole article. :(


  1. Hi there. I totally understand. This was what life was like for me and my husband as newlyweds as well. We lived in Japan for the first six years of our marriage, and he was a deacon for a year of that as well.

    What do you say to the American retort (that some people have told me) that if the Japanese person would just do what's "right" and spend time with their family in the evenings rather than working so much, others around them would see what a "good" thing that is, admire it, and follow suit? Because this was my immature expectation when we first got married, but I slowly realized it was not realistic and that it was actually totally incomprehensible within Japanese culture. But if one person doing that doesn't make a difference, what will? And if students are educated differently, how will they survive in Japanese society without having been trained to function in the standard Japanese manner? I know this is not something any one person can completely answer, but I would love to hear your thoughts! Thank you!

    1. Amanda, thanks so much for your comment! I've only ever met one other American Christian woman married to a Japanese man doing the salaryman thing, so it's nice to hear someone understands^^

      Like you say, I don't think such a simple "solution" will work. It's about fundamental values going back generations, so how do you change those?
      If one person left early to enjoy family time it probably wouldn't be seen as a good thing, especially not by the other people who stay late in the company. I think the person would just be labelled weird, or zurui, or selfish unless there was a very "good reason" for leaving "early" like sick family members or something.
      Also, plenty of Japanese men will never experience the "good" of being home. They know the wife will say, "what are you doing here? We need your overtime pay this month." Coworkers have asked many times why my husband wants to be home with me. Japanese marriages seem to be like that frequently. I sometimes wonder if the majority marries out of tatemae. That's the reality a lot of men get to go home to. Americans maybe don't know that.

      You're right, if you're not educated to join the system here but still have a Japanese face/name you'll be persecuted. It raises questions about how will we raise kids should we have them.

      I think the only chance for real change will probably be the complete bankruptcy of the current system. People around my husband's age sometimes get called the ゆとり世代, and are apparently are more self-centered than ever. We'll have to see though if they change at all by time they are the bosses and company presidents and in the Education Ministry. If change happens I think it will be slow!


Thanks for reading, be nice!