Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Japan and the Workaholic Ethos

We often read or hear about the things which unite us between nations- love of peace, the desire to live comfortably, have children- but a piece in today's paper caught my eye and reminded me how incredibly different cultures really are throughout the world. One of the uniting features I would have put money on was the desire of everyone worldwide, to get away from work and enjoy time pursuing hobbies, travelling, or even- my favourite- not doing very much at all. But the article in The Guardian today shows that we vary enormously in the amount of holiday time we are firstly allowed and then secondly choose take. It seems France tops the league of holidayers with an average of 39 days a year; then comes Germany with 27; UK gives 23; and USA, capital of the capitalist work ethic, a measly 12. Japan provides 18 but on average its workers take fewer than 9 days holiday. Why is this so? I ask (almost hysterically).

The most important reason is that, based on ancient aspects of its culture, modern Japan has developed an ethos of collective service-the idea that everyone has to contribute to the common purpose. This means that workers voluntarily turn in early and work late, every day they can manage just to stop feeling guilty. Amazed? I am. A further factor is that employers exploit this ethos and reinforce it by equating loyalty and assiduity with long hours at the desk. 57 year old Terumasa Yoshido starts work at 5.0. am and often finishes at 2.0am and there are hundreds of corporate slaves who behave the same way. Japan has, it has to be said been staff cutting to recapture its position of dominance, so remaining staff often has to work harder to maintain eficiency. But Japan needs more workers to support its ageing population and long hours discourage time with family. As a result families are few and far between. Young couples are so tired by long hours that they neglect the effortful business of procreation and the annual birth rate is currently barely over one child per couple. So acute is the problem that Kuniko Imuguchi, the minster with responsibility for raising the birthrate(yes, I know, there's a joke there somewhere) is going to introduce a bill to make the taking of one's full complement of days off compulsory. Even more amazed? Same here.

Just think of the way we approach our jobs over here. Most people I know in my field enjoy work but cannot wait to get away at weekends or to laze on beaches whenever they can. In the academic profession we are used to some colleagues apparently enjoying more leave than work. They get up pretty late, wander into their department just before a long lunch and then repair home for leisurely hours reading, eating and later, chatting in the pub. And these same people can complain endlessly of the pressure, the exhaustion, the unrelently grind of teaching at a university. They ought to try emigrating to Japan. The truth is we really are different and it's not surprising we have conflict from time to time; maybe it's surprising we rub by with so little overt misunderstanding and conflict.

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