Work Ethic in Japan
Mr Zakaria Laroussi
Professor Mari Hamada
A report submitted to Kyoto University of Education, Kyoto, Japan
In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the certificate of in-service
training for foreign teachers
April 2008 - March 2009
Table of contents 2
Chapter 1: Japanese employee’s mindset 6
Ganbari, Overwork, and Labour laws 8
Japanese style of management 12
Rice cultivation 13
Hard-working Japanese: Stereotype? 13
Chapter 2: Interview data analysis 16
Chapter 3: The complex interplay between hierarchy and harmony in
Japanese society and the position of women in the labour market 22
Hierarchy in Japanese society 23
Working in harmony 26
Gender relationship 27
Working women in Japan 28
Chapter 4: Japanese employees: face to face with work-related health
Chapter 5: NEET and Freeter: should they be blamed for the decline of
Japan’s work ethic? 40
NEET and “Freeter” 41
Impression of my Stay in Japan: A Taste of “Nihon no Seikatsu” 49
Appendix: Interview questions 52
To my family
To my friends in Morocco and those I have made in Japan
To my colleagues
Not only is this work the fruit of a great deal of reading and pondering about the
employment situation in Japan, but it is also the outcome of the generous support I
received from different people. First of all, I would like to thank the Japanese government
for accepting me to the teacher training program and giving me the incomparable
opportunity to experience Japanese culture first-hand. Sure enough without this
opportunity, this research could be impossible. My gratitude equally goes for the
Moroccan ministry of national education for allowing me to leave my job for the period
of my stay in Japan.
I feel deeply grateful to Professor Mari Hamada for her superb supervision of my
research and guidance. I am also indebted to my friend Ms Tomoko Kume for
enlightening me on various topics regarding Japanese culture. Thanks are also due to the
following friends for their kind acceptance to answer interview questions for my
research: Ms Atsumi Kimoto, Mr Makito Dojo and Mrs Yasuyo Dojo, Ms Hikari
Yokogawa, Mr Yohei Hamabata, Mr Toshiyuki Takeda, Mr Kentaro Kobayashi, and Ms
I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to my friend Mr Stig Lindberg for his
translation of the bushido spirit document, appearing at the end of chapter 2, and Ms
Elena Munteanu for her encouragement and review of some parts of the paper.
Lastly, I am especially much obliged to my family for their support either in Morocco or
here in Japan. I would also like to express my deepest gratitude to my friend Mr
Abdelhakim El Bakouri and my cousin Mr Mehdi Laroussi for all their effort to make my
participation in the training program possible.
Japan is a country with a truly rich culture born out of whole interactions between the
Japanese themselves and the Japanese and the outside world. Fully aware of its being a
treasure—a national pride—the Japanese are investing tremendous effort into preserving
their culture and showing it to the world. Be it a castle or a skyscraper, the old and the
modern here exist in nice harmony. History, just like modernity, is vividly felt; hence, the
appeal of Japan to foreigners.
Retracing history and stopping by the salient aspects of Japanese culture do not seem to
be out of reach. Religious beliefs, customs, traditions, family life, work ethic, and pop
culture, to name but a few, are all highlighted wherever one travels in the country. My
interest in the Japanese way of life is no less than that of the foreigners I made friends
with or the ones I simply met. Nevertheless, I find the work ethic of the Japanese
particularly worthy of careful study.
I would like to suggest approaching this study through five interconnected topics. The
first chapter will be a discussion of the influence of feudal thinking, which is embodied
by the warrior class prevalent from the 12th
to the 19th
centuries, on the Japanese people’s
perception of work and see whether or not the work ethic of the past is still popular
among the Japanese today. This notion of hard work will be questioned in chapter 2
through data gleaned from interviews with some Japanese people.
In the third chapter, I am going to tackle hierarchy in Japanese society and how its effect
is felt in the workplace as well. Also within the focus of this chapter is the characteristic
of harmony with its coalescing impact on employees and how the issue of gender disrupts
that harmony and paves the way for inequality to prevail in the workplace.
For the sake of comprehensiveness, I am going to explain why the work ethic that was
once praised for digging Japan out from rubble to an economic superpower is now
blamed for threatening Japanese employees’ lives.
To conclude my study, I am going to look at NEET and “Freeter” as premonitory
phenomena of the serious socio-economic problems challenging the international status
Through these aforementioned topics, I hope I manage to give a clear picture of the work
situation in the “rising sun.” The complete picture is definitely not the scope of the study,
but I will try to focus on what I feel are issues good enough for the elucidation of the
The rapid rise of Japan to an economic superpower after World War II was so
extraordinary that world leaders and economists had started showing immense interest in
the ‘Japanese miracle,’ as some scholars chose to call it. Towards the end of the 1970s, in
an attempt to understand how Japan could possibly succeed in building a strong
economy, many countries like Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia launched the learn
from Japan campaign. They were inspired by the ‘Japanese spirit, western technology’
slogan that was in vogue in the Meiji Restoration—a period in which the nation opened
up to the West.
Japan was seen a good model for other countries to emulate, and many scholars
supported that trend. For instance, in his 1979-published book Japan as Number One,
Harvard’s sociologist Ezra Vogel gives an interesting assessment of Japan’s economic
success. He attributes its praiseworthy status to its good education system, low level of
crime, effective bureaucracy and democracy.1
However, other scholars like futurologist Herman Khan tried to account for Japan’s
success story by highlighting the Japanese way of thinking. The latter is largely shaped
by such feudalistic values as group loyalty, commitment to duty, honor, and group
harmony. In fact, these very traits can be found in the code of the warrior (bushido 武士
道) prevalent in the warrior class, which ruled between the 12th
I would like to start this chapter by examining how the concepts of bushido and ganbari
have shaped the Japanese worker’s perception of work, and then proceed to find out
possible reasons for overwork prevalent at the workplace. My interest also includes
finding out the kind of legal protection employees have from exploitation. For more
insight into work ethic in Japan, I find the Japanese style of management and rice
cultivation worthy of attention. To conclude, I will question the taken-for-granted idea
that the Japanese are workaholic. In exploring the aforementioned points, I wish to help
make the work spirit of Japanese workers clearer.
1. Bushido (武士道 way of the warrior)
From Roger Davies and Osamu Ikeno, one learns that, “Bushido involved not only
martial spirit and skill with weapons, but also absolute loyalty to one’s lord, a strong
sense of personal honor, devotion to duty, and the courage, if required, to sacrifice one’s
life in battle or in ritual.”2
So defined, the concepts of loyalty, dignity, duty, and bravery
are deeply rooted in the warrior’s mind and he acts in accordance to them.
The values constituting the spirit of bushido are not limited to Japan’s feudal times only,
but they are also relevant to today’s context. Talking about work, Japanese employees
have to be loyal to their companies and bosses for the sake of business boom and in order
to safeguard their jobs. Any mistake the worker makes is viewed unfavorably by
superiors and colleagues. So, workers feel a great deal of pressure to constantly mind the
way they approach work. This has to do with preserving dignity. In case of mistake, they
would redeem themselves by resigning, or, in an extreme case, by committing suicide.
This is what shame culture is believed to be about. As the adage goes, “Die rather than
2. Ganbari (doing one’s best), Overwork, and Labour Laws
Related to the concept of bushido is the idea of ganbari, which roughly means “doing
one’s best.” According to Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno, this term “Connotes high
achievement, motivation, and orientation to group harmony.”3
One may hear this word on
the street, at school, in the company, in the supermarket, on the train, etc.—in fact almost
everywhere. With this in mind, the Japanese expect of everyone to go beyond the call of
duty and contribute to the development of their nation. Sticking to the company context,
workers who have failed to do their best cannot expect much in return. Actually, they just
have no future with their companies. As the proverb goes, “The monk who does not work
should not eat.”
Having said that, an important question comes to mind: are the Japanese a hard-working
people? From the data available, one may say so. Here are some statistics comparing the
annual working hours of 5 developed countries, including Japan:4
Working hours per year (estimated hours worked by production and manufacturing workers)
Year Japan USA UK Germany France
1980 2,162 ( 209 ) 1,893 ( 146 ) 1,883 ( 125 ) 1,719( 104 ) 1,759
1985 2,168 ( 230 ) 1,929 ( 172 ) 1,910 ( 161 ) 1,663 ( 83 ) 1,644
1990 2,124 ( 219 ) 1,948 ( 192 ) 1,953 ( 187 ) 1,598 ( 99 ) 1,683
1995 1,975 ( 152 ) 1,986 ( 234 ) 1,943 ( 198 ) 1,550 ( 88 ) 1,680
1996 1,993 ( 168 ) 1,986 ( 234 ) 1,929 ( 182 ) 1,517 ( 68 ) 1,679
1997 1,983 ( 179 ) 2,005 ( 250 ) 1,934 ( 187 ) 1,517 ( 68 ) 1,677
1998 1,947 ( 152 ) 1,991 ( 239 ) 1,925 ( 177 ) 1,525 ( 57 ) 1,672
1999 1,942 ( 155 ) 1,991 ( 239 ) 1,906 ( 151 ) 1,525 ( 57 ) 1,650
2000 1,970 ( 175 ) 1,986 ( 239 ) 1,902 ( 151 ) 1,538 1,589
2001 1,948 ( 159 ) 1,943 ( 203 ) 1,902 ( 151 ) 1,529 1,554
2002 1,954 ( 171 ) 1,952 ( 213 ) 1,888 ( 135 ) 1,525 1,539
2003 1,975 ( 189 ) 1,929 ( 218 ) 1,888 ( 130 ) 1,525 1,538
2004 1,996 ( 199 ) 1,948 ( 239 ) 1,888 ( 130 ) 1,525 1,538
2005 1,988 ( 200 ) 1,943 ( 239 ) 1,869 ( 125 ) 1,525 1,537
*Figures in ( ) are non-scheduled hours worked.
A careful examination of the figures given in the table indicates that the cases of Japan
and the USA are particularly interesting to consider. Workers in these countries have
more or less invested as much time in work. For a better appreciation of the situation,
however, I would like to divide the table into 3 distinct time blocs: the first one extends
from 1980 to 1990. Here, it is easy to remark that the Japanese put in more working hours
than American workers. The situation changed in the next time bloc between 1995 and
2000. Interestingly, unlike the first period of time, the American worker did better than
the Japanese, especially if one considers the non-scheduled hours worked. Considering
2001-2005 period, one will notice that Japanese workers tried successfully to redress the
balance, but the non-scheduled hours worked remained in favor of the Americans.
What could be the reason behind this fluctuation in terms of the number of working hours
in the first and second economies in the world? It is important to note that in 1982 the
American economy slipped into a deep recession, which one could invoke to argue in
favor of more working hours, but the figures show otherwise. The same thing goes for the
Japanese bubble economy during the 1990s; whereas it makes sense to expect more effort
invested into work in order to climb out of the economic stagnation of the time, the
statistics available do not seem to reflect the economic difficulty Japan went through.
Following Robert S. Ozaki, there is a tendency for people to work longer hours when
their country is poor than when it experiences economic prosperity.5
He gives the
example of Britain and states that, “during 1840-1870, the norm for English machinists
was to be in the factory from six A.M. till six P.M., or twelve hours per day. Allowing for
rest periods and meal breaks, their daily work must have come to about ten hours.”6
situation was the same in Japan in the first part of the 20th
century. The relevance of this
is that although Japanese workers now work fewer hours than before (e.g., 1980-1990),
Japan still maintains the commendable status of the second economy in the world. This
may be justified by the fact that now Japan relies largely on modern technology and more
efficient work methods. I believe these two elements as well as the excellent work ethics
of the Japanese have made Japan a well-established economic superpower with a very
strong economic infrastructure. This makes me think that Ozaki’s claim that the poor
economic conditions of a country may urge its people to work longer hours is probably
not valid any more in the Japanese context. I believe that any reduction of working hours
should be understood as either a necessary tactic used for economic recovery when global
markets are beset by difficulties, or when labour shows high levels of organization and
dependence on the machine. These are the spirit of Globalization that seems to govern
global markets especially in North America, Europe, and Japan.
In 1991, Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi (1991-1993) announced a new direction in the
way Japan was going. Having worked so hard that they have successfully turned their
country into an economic superpower, the Japanese people deserved a reward; in the
Prime Minister’s words, Japan needed to become a “lifestyle superpower” (生活大国
that is, Japan needed to strike a balance between labour and leisure so
that the Japanese would enjoy the fruits of their hard work, just as peoples of other
developed nations are doing. To that end, the government of Tsutomu Hata (28 April-30
June 1994) suggested a reduction of working hours setting a target of 150 hours per
month by 1996.
Statistically speaking, working hours did fall below the-150-hours-per-month level 2
years earlier to 1996. Nevertheless, overtime lifted the workload as the table below
Year Standard hours Overtime Total hours worked
1960 180.8 21.9 202.7
1965 176.4 16.5 192.9
1970 169.9 16.7 186.6
1975 161.4 10.6 172.0
1980 163.0 12.7 175.7
1985 161.0 14.6 175.6
1986 160.8 14.4 175.2
1987 161.1 14.8 175.9
1988 160.2 15.7 175.9
1989 158.2 15.8 174.0
1990 159.0 13.0 172.0
1991 156.3 12.3 168.6
1992 154.7 10.5 165.2
1993 150.5 9.5 160.0
1994 149.8 9.4 159.2
1995 149.6 9.6 159.2
1996 149.7 9.7 159.9
1997 147.3 10.3 157.6
1998 146.8 9.6 155.9
1999 143.8 9.5 153.3
2000 144.6 9.8 154.4
2001 143.6 9.4 153.0
Talking about overwork, Japanese employees are famous worldwide for being
workaholic. The table above does not provide clear-cut evidence of that wide-spread
belief, but the highly organized way in which the Japanese approach work, the dedication
they show to their jobs, their passive acceptance of overwork, and the short holidays they
get are in my view good reasons why foreigners strongly believe them to be hard
working. One more thing is that the emergence of Japan as a strong economic competitor
to Western powers after it had been devastated by the war startled the outside world and
led it to attribute that to the Japanese’s hard work and determination to rebuild their
It is important to mention, however, that overwork is a very familiar issue to both the
young and old. The long hours many Japanese employees have to spend in the company
have to do with the attitude of the management towards their enthusiasm at and
commitment to work and the way that attitude may impact on their careers, as Japanese
companies tend to measure loyalty to work by the amount of time the worker puts into it.
In return for that time, workers expect promotions and pay increases. Thus, the employer-
employee relationship is based on what one may call mutual benefit which sometimes
amounts to the exploitation of the former to the latter. This brings me to an important
question: what kind of legal protection from exploitation is there for Japanese workers?
Here are some articles of the Labour Standards Law which employees rely on for good
1). An employer shall not have a worker work more than forty hours per week,
2). An employer shall not have a worker work more than eight hours per day for
each day of the week, excluding recesses.
1). In the event of temporary necessity by reason of disaster or other
unavoidable circumstances, an employer, may extend the working hours under Articles
32 through 32-5 inclusive and Article 40 and may have workers work on rest days under
Article 35; with the permission of the administrative office, and within the limits of such
necessity, however, in the event that the necessity is so urgent that there is not time
enough to obtain the permission of the administrative office, the employer shall report
this after the fact without delay.
1). An employer shall provide workers at least one rest day per week.
2). In the event that an employer has entered a written agreement with either a
trade union organized by where a majority of the workers at the work place concerned,
where such a trade union exists, or with a person representing a majority of the workers,
where no such trade union exists, and has filed such agreement with administrative
office, the employer may, regardless of the provisions of Articles 32 through 32-5 and
Article 40 with respect to working hours (hereinafter referred to as "working hours" in
this Article) and the provisions of the preceding Article with respect to rest days
(hereinafter referred to as "rest days" in this Article), extend the working hours or have
workers work on the rest days in accordance with the stipulations of such agreement.
Provided that, the extension in working hours of underground work and other work
specified by ordinance as especially injurious to health shall not exceed two hours per
1). In the event that an employer extends working hours or has a worker work
on rest days in accordance with the provisions of Article 33 or paragraph 1 of the
preceding Article the employer shall pay the increased wages for work during such hours
or on such days at the rate of at least 25 percent and no more than 50 percent over the
normal wages per working hour or working day.
The articles clearly state it is unlawful to get an employee work more than 160 hours per
week, i.e., 8 hours per day with the weekend and recess time excluded. However, the law
delineates that in the case of a disaster or an accord between the management and labour
unions overwork is allowed only if it is not detrimental to the health of the worker and
the latter gets a 25-50 percent pay increase. Apparently, this amount of workload is out of
line with the aspiration of the Japanese government which aims at reducing working
hours to 150 hours per week.
I have heard several stories about overwork in Japan where workers would sacrifice
weekends for the company and work until late hours at night during weekdays. Of course,
this is done in violation of labour laws as well as probably the work contract the
employee has signed. It is easy for one to feel a sense of rejection of overwork among
young Japanese, in particular. Yet from conversations with some Japanese friends, I
learnt that overwork is the norm in the Japanese world of business. In a defensive tone,
my friends indicated that overwork made their country prosperous. Thus, people feel it
necessary to adhere to that way of life, which is a comfortable way to keep harmony
between each other.
Whereas the business world in Japan believes in the necessity of long hours of work to
maximize profits, the Japanese government would like to bring those working hours
down to 150 per month. Will the government succeed in reconciling both desires,
especially that overwork is deeply rooted in the culture?
I would like to discuss this issue further by considering the Japanese style of
3. Japanese Style of Management
In his book The Sun Also Rises over Toledo, Sada Honda, president of WIN Advisory
Group in New York, gives an insightful explanation of the way the Japanese manage
business. He says that:
“One of the most striking things I observed at the beginning of my job
with the Japanese firm in Detroit was to see the visiting Japanese
executives insist on meeting American employees. They went through
all the names and the backgrounds of the employees before the visit
and greeted each one of them. There was a dinner at night to which all
the employees were invited. . . . I could see [the Americans’]
increasing sense of belonging. The act was certainly a motivating
factor for every American and a confidence builder in their working
for a Japanese company. The important observation here is that this
kind of action comes naturally to even the upper echelons of a
Not only is the success of the Japanese in the world of business attributable to overwork,
but also to the sense of belonging workers tie to their companies. As a rule, cooperation
at work is the norm. That is why Japanese workers would avoid leaving the workplace
while their coworkers are still busy finishing some tasks. Likewise, workers usually do
not have definite responsibilities at work, as they can do whatever they may be assigned.
Moreover, the management would encourage a participatory approach toward making
decisions concerning the company in order to reinforce a sense of belonging among the
workers. Of equal importance, the Japanese would prefer long-term or, sometimes, life-
long employment to layoffs. In short, the point behind the Japanese style of management
is to make employees approach work in unity and zeal, with high levels of productivity,
quality and then revenue as the ultimate objectives.
4. Rice Cultivation
Ever since the beginning of its cultivation in the Yayoi era (500 BC-300 AD), rice has
been an important aspect of Japanese culture. It has been a staple food and used to brew
sake (酒 Japanese wine) as well as make a variety of delicious cakes. The Japanese use
the word “御飯 gohan”, which means rice, and add prefixes to the word to get terms for
breakfast (朝ご飯 asagohan), lunch (昼ごはん hirugohan) and dinner (晩御飯
bangohan). This testifies to the importance of rice in the Japanese life.
In fact, there is more to rice than just nutrition. The study of rice cultivation gives us an
insight into Japanese work ethic. First, one needs to remember some facts about the
geography and climate of Japan. Japan is an island country in East Asia with more than
70% of the country as mountainous terrain. Whereas summer is so hot and humid, winter
is so cold in the north, in particular. June and July are known as the rainy season while
August and September as the typhoon season. In short, geography and climate seriously
challenged the survival of the Japanese.
With a lot of rainfall, Japan is surely a good place for rice cultivation. Yet, Japanese
farmers had to toil at rooting out weeds in their paddy fields. As there were only simple
farming tools and no herbicides in old times, the farmers had always to attend to the
fields with the help of each other. What is more, during the rule of the Tokugawa
Shogunate (Edo Period: 1603-1868), farmers had to offer 40% of the rice crop to the
In addition, only 15% of the land in Japan is suitable for cultivation. Clearly,
under the long reign of the Shogunate, farmers were feeling too much pressure—a
pressure that was exacerbated by the rough terrain and severe climate in the country.
Consequently, Japanese people fully realized that hard work was the right choice for
them to survive—an essential lesson they handed on to their progeny.
5. Hard-working Japanese: Stereotype?
Once again, I would like to raise the question: do the Japanese work hard? Or rather, do
they still retain the lesson their forefathers taught them before? Professor David
Matsumoto argues that the image that foreigners as well as Japanese people themselves
hold about the Japanese worker as a “samurai in suits”, “worker bee”, or “corporate
warrior” is but a myth.12
Today, the Japanese are living in a completely different time. Unlike the past, farming is
done using sophisticated machines; as a consequence, productivity is guaranteed.
Additionally, by the end of the 1970s, the country had already recovered from the ravages
of World War II, and since then, it has been the envy of many countries in Asia and
elsewhere. Moreover, Japanese products are well-known world-wide for their quality.
The point here is that the country is now enjoying affluence, and as a result, Japanese
people may not be feeling strongly about the necessity for hard work as before.
What David Matsumoto would like to say is that the attitude of the Japanese towards
work is changing, especially among young workers. The latter regard work as a source of
income, not a purpose in life any more. Regarding the system of wages, they prefer the
merit-based to seniority-based system. This is being so because the youth express their
dissatisfaction at the fact that they are rewarded according to their age and the years they
have worked for a particular company, with almost no regard paid to their abilities and
education. Thus, saying that Japanese workers consecrate their personal and family lives
for the sake of the company sounds a bit exaggerated.
I would like to close this chapter by saying that it is hard to define what exactly shapes
the Japanese way of thinking with regards to work, but I believe that the harsh moral
code of feudal warriors and rice cultivation had an enormous impact on the Japanese
thinking. Among the things the Bushido spirit emphasizes are loyalty to, sacrifice for, and
perfection in serving the master. The master in modern Japan is the boss at work. Loyalty
to the boss comes in the form of such things as supporting the success of the company by
hard work and obeying the instructions of the management. Sacrifice is exemplified by
doing overwork, which reduces the time employees spend with their families. As to
perfection, Japanese employees feel it a moral obligation to serve customers the best way.
They would do whatever possible to guarantee the satisfaction of their customers. In so
doing, the boss’ interest in doing business successfully is well served.
To turn to rice cultivation, farmers supported each other to surmount the challenge posed
by the climate. They had to rely on muscle rather than advanced machinery to tend their
fields, so they had to work together for a crop large enough to give part of to the shogun
and to keep the rest for their families. In a similar vein, cooperation in the workplace is
necessary. Not only that, but it is also crucial to show group spirit, just as farmers did in
The moral code of Bushido, which grew out of a mixture of ideas from Buddhism,
Shintoism and Confucianism that appealed to the warrior class, and rice cultivation have
both left indelible effect on Japanese employees and employers alike. And the spirit of
ganbari and the Japanese style of management are but manifestations of the presence of
those determinants of the Japanese employee’s mindset.
. Paul J. Scalise, “Sisyphus, the Japan Specialist,” JapanReview.net, 12 January
2001, May 2008 <http://www.japanreview.net/review_is_japan.htm>
. Roger Davies and Osamu Ikeno, The Japanese Mind: Understanding
Contemporary Japanese Culture, (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2002) 41-42
. Ibid., p.84
. “Estimates of Annual Hours Actually Worked for Production Workers,
Manufacturing,” 2007, The Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, May 2008
. Robert S. Ozaki, The Japanese: A Cultural Portrait, (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle
Co., 1978) 254
. Ibid., p.253
. David Leheny, The Rules of Play: National Identity and the Shaping of Japanese
Leisure, Google Books, May 2008 <http://books.google.com/books?id=
. Ross Mouer and Hirosuke Kawanishi, A Sociology of Work in Japan, (UK:
Cambridge University Press, 2005) 78
. “Labour Standards Law,” International Labour Organization, June 2008
. “Just What is Japanese Management Style?” WIN Advisory Group, June 2008
. Ibid., Robert S. Ozaki, p.257
. David Matsumoto, The New Japan: Debunking Seven Cultural Stereotypes,
(United States of America: International Press, Inc., 2002)
For a better appreciation of the work situation in Japan, I conducted 7 interviews with
female and male Japanese people who earn their living either as part-timers or full-timers.
I started my interviews with a question regarding the world view of Japanese people as
hard working. The interviewees responded differently: 5 of them confirmed that the
Japanese are diligent, although efficiency at work is debatable, according to one of the
female interviewees. On the other hand, one of the remaining 2 interviewees said that the
foreigners he knows work harder than his Japanese friends. The second person, however,
was undecided on whether Japanese people are hard working or not. He argued that many
people in Japan care much about money, which is their prime motivation for work.
Moving on to a personal question, I asked the interviewees if they were hard working or
not. Four of them answered positively. Another person told me he used to be very
diligent, but now he has decided to shift for an easy lifestyle so that he could enjoy his
work. As to the last two interviewees, they gave a categorical “no.” I think it would be
safer to say that the attitude Japanese people hold about hard work is to a large extent
determined by age, in the sense that the older a person gets the more convinced he
becomes of the importance of hard work. That is probably so because of the family
responsibilities he has to meet.
Talking about hard work among business people, all the interviewees, but one, criticized
the huge amount of time business people devote to their companies/work, which is
judged as being at the expense of domestic life. It is “sacrifice of your life, your family,
free time and even your health,” said one interviewee. It is “crazy,” “ridiculous,” “don’t
like it,” “too much work,” said others. In general terms, there is wide-spread rejection of
overwork in Japan, especially among young generations, who blame it for the absence of
time for family and deterioration of health. In this regard, I remember two interesting
stories my Japanese friends at Kyoto University told me; they said that the weekend was
the only opportunity for them to see their fathers, as the latter had to go to work very
early in the morning and they got back late at night. In my view, that must have a
negative effect on children and their mothers, who raise the children with little support
from the husbands. Another interviewee expressed his sorrow and indignation at the fact
that his father’s company robbed him of the pleasure to play with the father when he was
Another question I included in my interview was about work satisfaction. Six of the
interviewees said they were satisfied with their work. The seventh person, however,
expressed dissatisfaction due to the poor health care system her employer provides her
Asking my interviewees about their opinions about Japanese people who choose to leave
Japan for another country in pursuit of better working conditions, they were divided on
whether or not to leave the country. They had arguments like: if one leaves for another
country for work and at some point in his life decides to get back and settle in Japan, he
could find it hard to join the labour market. Japanese companies are sensitive to this issue
and might think that person who chose to work abroad is not a reliable person to employ.
Another interviewee emphasized she would choose to leave Japan for a foreign country
only if she could find a steady job with fringe benefits. The interesting thing however is
not that she would like to work abroad because she wants to escape the huge amount of
workload employers usually offer their employees, but it is primarily because she likes
Western lifestyle. A similar motive was stated by another female interviewee. A fourth
person supported the idea that young Japanese people who are not tied to family
responsibilities should experience life abroad for some time, which sounded like criticism
directed against the business mindset of the Japanese. In a nutshell, making a decision in
favour of going abroad for work is a tough decision that requires a careful consideration
of the negative consequences it may have.
As to what Japanese government should do in order to improve working conditions in
Japan, the interviewees had different views. They were generally concerned about the
social divide between the rich and the poor, long working hours and short vacations,
protection of workers from karoshi 過労死, support of working women taking care of
children, by providing enough childcare facilities and requiring employers to allow them
more free time so they can take care of children. The interviewees also cited
unemployment, discrimination against women at work, and part-timer’s rights as issues
requiring the government’s attention. Nonetheless, two other interviewees want the
Japanese government to allow more foreigners to come to Japan for work. In fact, this
point is worth the attention of the Japanese government, in the sense that unless Japan
takes serious measures to attract more skilled foreign workers, its economic competitive
edge will become in a real danger. The aging population reinforces the threat more.
Additionally, I asked my interviewees about what would the ideal job for them be, one
with long hours of work, but well paid, or a job that allows for relatively more leisure, but
the pay is just enough. It was easy for three of the interviewees to go for the second type
of job. They prefer a simple life that would allow them to enjoy some free time with
family members and friends—a job that will not make them feel enslaved by work. It was
probably well formulated by a respondent when she said that, “balance [between personal
and professional lives] is preferable.” Other interviewees found it hard to choose the best
option for them, probably because they are still in their 20s, single, and they do not have
long work experiences.
When asked about their prime motivation for work, five of the seven interviewees said
that work to them was a purpose in life. This belief is similar to the conviction of many
older Japanese people who prefer to put the success of their companies first; the
difference however is that younger people seem to know when to change priorities
between work and personal life.
As to job-hopping, six of the seven interviewees mentioned they were interested in
finding jobs that meet their needs much better, i.e., jobs which are more enjoyable, more
remunerative, or rather jobs guaranteeing more social security, like full-time ones. These
responses may be understood as contradictory to what the interviewees said earlier about
work satisfaction, but I feel that social security is the aspiration of everyone, and in this
sense job-hopping is quite natural and shows clearly the change happening to Japanese
For all the interviewees, loyalty to the company does not mean much. They believe,
instead, in doing their work properly, but not let themselves be easy preys to sadistic
bosses. In a related way, the majority of the respondents showed clear rejection of
overwork, yet, as one of the interviewees mentioned, the fact that overwork contributed a
great deal to Japan’s economic prosperity after World War II makes people sometimes
find sense in spending long hours at work than spend enough time with their families.
The interviewees were divided on to what to attribute the spirit of diligence the Japanese
are believed to possess. They referred to rice cultivation, ganbari, and bushido. On
considering these three, the individual finds that during feudal times, Japanese farmers
had to give half of their rice harvest to the samurai, which means they had to work hard
to fulfill the duty. One more thing in this regard is that arable land in Japan is very
limited. Having this in mind made it essential for the farmers to work hard in order to
make the best use of land. One interviewee mentioned pride as another important factor
behind the hard work spirit. That definitely makes sense as well since a group-oriented
society like the Japanese one shares guilt stemming from the repercussions of mistakes
and dereliction of duty. Loss of face is painful to the Japanese. That is a strong reason for
them to do their best for better results. I believe that all these four factors are interrelated
and each one of them contributed to the shaping of the Japanese mindset regarding hard
work as we know it today.
Having said that, one needs to be careful enough to notice that the hard work spirit of
today is completely different from that of the 1960’s, 1970’s, or 1980’s. All my
interviewees agreed unanimously about this idea. They explained that today’s youths are
mostly seeking pleasure and leisure, although some try to work for the common good. On
top of that, today’s motivations for the young to work hard are not similar to the ones
their parents or grandparents had immediately after World War II. The war devastated the
country and people were almost starving. Those were strong motivations for people to
work hard for long hours on a daily basis.
Broadly speaking, the difference between young and old Japanese in viewing hard work
is much pronounced. While old Japanese think of work in terms of raison d'être—
something so sacred to the individual—young people see work as a purpose in life, but
with clear awareness of the importance of personal pursuits, which they allot time for.
The agrarian feudal thinking still exists in modern Japanese society, even though it is less
strong among the youth.
I would like to end this analysis by presenting the following guidelines document that one
of my friends’ bosses keeps on his desk all the time, as I was told. It is based on the
bushido spirit as explained by famous Inazo Nitobe and Yukio Mishima. The document is
kind of a reminder of how work should be approached in Japan.
Reforming Business: the Teaching of Bushido
Here is a translation of the notes in this document:
Samurai are shamed by undignified behaviour.
Avarice will undermine a business.
Compassion constitutes humanness.
Do not scorn the weak and helpless.
Do not be a flatterer. Be sincere.
Value honour and reputation over easy wealth.
Duty of loyalty
Confront a superior if he is wrong, but always remain true and loyal, even if it means
It is impossible to accomplish any great task in a state of sanity. One must
become insane, prepared to die in order to achieve greatness.
Be prepared for action all the time.
Like the samurai, the salaryman needs to take pride in his achievements at work.
Do not get bogged down by minor issues.
One needs to get rid of the bad points in his character as soon as he realizes them.
The complex interplay between hierarchy and harmony in Japanese
society and the position of women in the labour market
In this chapter, I would like to deal with three issues of particular importance to the
understanding of Japanese work environment: 1) hierarchy, 2) maintaining harmony
among colleagues, and 3) gender relationship. Hierarchy is an aspect of Japanese culture
that is unmistakably felt. I have noticed that almost every Japanese person would act
within a clearly demarcated boundary, i.e., going beyond one’s territory is embarrassing,
unwelcome, or even rude. To put it differently, knowing one’s position and operating
from it seems to be a must in Japanese society. It is this very strong emphasis which is
placed on hierarchy that I find more attractive for me to devote some room to it in this
As to harmony, it is undoubtedly another characteristic of Japanese society that
foreigners like me would see every day in Japan. Even Japanese people themselves are
quite conscious of its strong presence in their lives. I can only express my amazement at
the wonderful scenes of group spirit that old people show towards each other when they
go on group excursions at weekends. Other familiar scenes of unity and cooperation are
demonstrated by club members, colleagues, or even musical bands when they get
together for fun and drinking parties (飲み会 nomikai) on the sides of the Kamogawa
River in Shijo and Sanjo areas in Kyoto. It is my belief that such a sense of belonging to a
group has largely contributed to Japan’s economic success. Hence, I find the issue of
harmony between colleagues in the workplace worthy of discussion.
In a related way, when one talks of work in Japan, s/he indirectly refers to a complex
relationship existing between males and females in the labour market. I have just
discussed that harmony between workers is vital for business success, but do male and
female workers go about their professional lives harmoniously? Are there not any
tensions between them? I have been hearing numerous stories of Japanese females who
have been discriminated against on grounds of age and gender. Equality of opportunities
and anti-discrimination laws appear to be but phrases on documents. Not only is treating
50 % of the population unequally unjust, but also mismanagement of human resources.
1. Hierarchy in Japanese Society:
The Japanese are a hierarchy-conscious society. They are socially required to
demonstrate the ability to recognize rank, position and status of the fellow citizens they
deal with and respect them in accordance to the social status they hold. Probably, this is
so due to important historical reasons. During the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan was
ruled over by the powerful Tokugawa clan, which divided the society into four distinct
classes: samurai, farmers, craftspeople, and traders. Movement between these classes was
largely restricted. And as a rule, respect for the upper class was a must.
The Tokugawa government tried to maintain control over the populace by adopting the
tenets of Confucianism. Under the principles of this faith, the elderly must be respected
and their wisdom is highly valued. Children are to heed careful attention to their parents’
guidance and opinions. So, this vertical structure that exists in Japanese society today is a
logical development of a past way of living.
Talking about Confucianism impacting on the segments of Japanese society does not
make the world of business an exception, although the winds of globalization or
internationalization, and therefore change, are blowing hard. Employees in Japan still
show immense, sometimes excessive, respect for their superiors. Especially for
breadwinners, who have to show their support for their employers and curry favor with
them, acknowledging status is a sort of life or death thing. Promotions and securing jobs
in a certain company depend to a large extent on how much the employee is conscious of
hierarchy and behaves accordingly.
The history of Japan provides a great deal of insight into the vertical interpersonal
relationship prevalent in Japanese society. As I mentioned before, to control the
populace, the Tokugawas invoked the tenets of Confucianism since the latter, following
Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno:
“Considers proper human relationships as the basis of society…
[It] stresses a social order based on strict ethical rules, centering
on the family and state, both of which should be governed by men
of education and superior ethical wisdom.”1
Deemed essential for an upright society, parents still hold on to the ethical rules of
Confucianism and try to pass them on to children. Their guidance in meeting the task of
raising the children along Confucian lines does not have to come from books or school. It
seems that being under a feudal rule for some 7 centuries has made the Japanese behave
today, more or less, in the way their predecessors were brought up and got used to; that
is, the way a Japanese person behaves seems spontaneous and does not come from any
consciousness of Confucian thinking he or his forefathers were exposed to.
One of the things Japanese children learn in the family is how to recognize one’s position
in society. For instance, in their formative years, children learn to make a bow—a bow
appropriate for the status of the person to whom it is given. Sometimes, part of the
training they get, toddlers are often pushed down in order to get used to bowing.
In her classic book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture,
the eminent American anthropologist Ruth Benedict discusses in more detail the issue of
respect in relation to hierarchy as learned in the Japanese family, and she states that:
“In Japan it is precisely in the family where respect rules are learned and
meticulously observed. While the mother still carries the baby strapped to
her back she will push his head down with her hand, and his first lessons
as a toddler are to observe respect behavior to his father or older brother.
The wife bows to her husband, the child bows to his father, younger
brothers bow to elder brothers, the sister bows to all her brothers of
In this quote, not only does Ruth tell us about the great importance of respect in Japanese
life and the way it is related to status, but she also reveals an essential fact about how
both age and gender shape relations between Japanese people. I will pick up this issue
later in the chapter.
What Ruth Benedict has to say about hierarchy might seem to be irrelevant to modern
Japan, but the fact of the matter is that her observations still hold valid. Shoguns and
samurai are no longer around, nor is that form of hierarchy which separated the four
classes I mentioned earlier. By modern standards, hierarchy in Japan today is strong and
is felt among individuals rather than classes. However, compared with the past, it is
definitely less tense now.
Examples of hierarchy in Japanese society abound, but I would like to mention two. In
the field of education, when students meet their professors on campus, they very often
greet them with bows shrouded in awe. New foreign students in Japan often show
pleasant surprise at that. Similarly, new recruits in Japanese companies find themselves in
a vertical relationship with senior coworkers. New employees, or Kouhai 後輩 as they are
referred to in Japanese, are expected to respect and obey senior coworkers, or Senpai 先
輩. It seems to me that Japanese culture does not emphasize difference between social
classes, but between individuals. However, one thing a person would feel is that there is a
strong consensus among the Japanese about the utility of hierarchy as it has a unifying
effect on the segments of society.
To narrow the scope of my discussion to hierarchy in Japanese companies, it is important
to mention that the latter have a rigid system of hierarchy. Following Louella Matsunaga,
ranking is determined by the position an employee holds in the company (for example
section chief or ordinary worker), employment status (part-timer or full-timer), education
level (university or high-school graduate), seniority, age, and gender. Employees with no
more than high school education join blue-collar or low-level white collar jobs, while
managerial positions go to university graduates. Even in recruiting new employees,
companies show preference for young male university graduates who did not get any
training in schools of business. These companies favor training their recruits in such a
way that they would approach work in keeping with their directions. The training would
last for 6 months or more during which the recruit is introduced to the functions of all the
sections of the company.
In the case of large companies and if the male recruit, in particular, comes from a
prestigious university, his chances of getting a life-time employment are high, although
such a type of employment is obsolescent. Promotion is determined by either
performance at work or seniority. In this respect, young best workers will usually get
promoted in their 30s, and then they have to wait for a couple of years for the next
One more point to mention about hierarchy in the company before I move on to discuss
the issue of harmony between coworkers is that every morning company employees
would stand in front of their section chiefs or general managers and be reminded of such
things as the company’s current business status and its targets. Employees are also
reminded of the importance of the way customers should be received, for that has a
significant impact on the future of the company. Morning meetings may appear to be
annoying to employees, but their benefits to the company are undeniable.
2. Working in Harmony:
Japanese society stresses the importance of harmony and cooperation in a group. This
concept of harmony, called wa 和, is echoed in the Japanese proverb “silence is golden
but eloquence is only silver.” Harmony is one of the tenets of Confucian thinking, which
the Japanese believe in.
In general terms, Japanese people would use very polite language and would present
unfavorable information in the most gentle way they can think of, or frequently indirectly
or ambiguously, so that they keep homogeneity with each other.
Talking about the origin of harmony as a virtue strongly nurtured in Japan, Roger J.
Davies and Osamu Ikeno tell us that because Japan is a mountainous country with limited
inhabitable land, “people had to live close together in communities in which everyone
was well acquainted with one another.”3
People foster consensus and cooperation, and
any attempt to go against group wishes would pave the way for friction and the exclusion
of the people provoking it.
Teamwork and harmony in the workplace are very important aspects of Japanese work
culture. Mutual harmony makes the company much more a comfortable place to work in
and increases effectiveness as employees and management can devote their full attention
towards the goal of doing business and are less distracted by internal conflict.
For the sake of harmony between employees and management, every year, Japanese
companies would organize various social events. One of these as my Japanese friend Ms
Kume Tomoko explained is bonenkai party 忘年会, called year-end or forget-the-year
party. The bonenkai is celebrated by almost all Japanese companies in December.
Following Ms Kume, not only is the bonenkai about forgetting the year, but it is also an
opportunity for management and employees to meet in a pub and open up to each other.
Such a party is markedly casual, so employees do not have to worry much about the
etiquettes usually minded while meeting or talking to the boss in the workplace. The
bonenkai would start with a speech in which the boss thanks his employees for the hard
work they have displayed throughout the year, and he would also solicit more hard work
for the coming year. After the boss’ speech, everyone starts enjoying drinking, and while
doing so, the boss would ask some employees to reflect on how work has been done in
the soon-ending year. It is the right time for employees to express their opinions freely
about the positive as well as the negative things about the way work has been done.
Other social events held by Japanese companies are parties to welcome new regular
employees or parties for those leaving the company. There are also short-holiday trips
and sporting events. Such events are organized and paid for by company unions. Since
employees do not have to pay for anything to participate in the activities, there
motivation is high. Most participants are young single regular employees of both sexes.
Apart from the fact that the events organized are free, employees see these as
opportunities for them and management to enjoy time together, away from the stressful
life they all experience in the workplace. One more thing worthy of mention here is that
these events are also occasions for unmarried male and female employees to get to know
each other better while talking in a relaxed atmosphere. Thus, the way to meeting a bride
is smooth for young men.
To sum up, companies make sure that their employees get along well with each other,
and the social events they give throughout the year not only are they meant to evaluate
the way companies do business, or get advice from employees about how management
can best lead the company to success, it is also about reinforcing harmony and
cooperation between employees and management.
3. Gender Relationship:
Female employees in Japan, like many in various countries of the world, are
underprivileged. Discrimination against them at work on the basis of sex, age, and
income is well documented.
In what follows, I would like to deal with this issue of discrimination against women in
the Japanese workplace, but first I wish to begin with some theoretical background on
women joining the labour force in general. One of the theories of economics used to
explain the status of women at work is human capital theory. It refers to:
“The knowledge workers acquire through the investment of time
and money to become more productive. […] years of education
and years of experience improve workers’ capacities, and that
employers reward employees for attaining such skills.”4
All of schooling, training courses, and lectures on values associated with work, like
punctuality and hard work, raise earnings and therefore lead to business success. That is a
good reason for them to be essential constituents of human capital.
According to human capital theory, women are prone to leave their jobs earlier than men,
due probably to their family commitment. Because of this, companies are unwilling to
hire females for positions where much company-financed training is required. This shows
to a large extent why only few women, in comparison to men, hold leadership positions.
With regards to the skills employers are seeking in employees, economists differentiate
between firm-general and firm-specific skills. The former are those skills that are useful
to many employers in the labour market, while firm-specific skills are of use to one
employer. Human capital theorists argue that employees pay for firm-general skills by
themselves when they go to school, whereas employers pay for firm-specific skills when
they hire employees, since schools do not provide that kind of education. As a
consequence, employers do not want to lose workers after they have received firm-
specific training, for that is going to be a loss of training costs. In the case of female
employees, quitting the job is a possibility. That is the perspective of employers.
Working Women in Japan:
Japanese woman has been contributing much to the country’s economic growth. Today,
41.6% (or 22.8 million) of the 54.7 million Japanese employees are women.5
60% of the women employed have either full-time or part-time jobs.6
however, do not make Japanese women feel optimistic about their future in the labour
Although article 14 of the Japanese Constitution of 1947 states that “All of the people are
equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social
relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin,” discrimination
against women is rife. Many women earn their living as office ladies, or occupy low
positions. In 2002, only about 50% of women were full-time employees, versus 85% of
men. On 25 July 2003, Mariko Brando, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s aide, tried to
reflect the economic injustice Japanese women are facing by saying to The New York
Times newspaper that “Japan is still a developing country in terms of gender equality.”
In fact, figures in the following table show that the situation of working women in Japan
is not as good as we might think:
Employed People by Occupation (in million)7
Occupation 1995 2000 2005 2006 2007
64,460 63,560 63,820 64,120 58.5 41.5
7,900 8,560 9,370 9,370 9,380 53.8 46.2
2,360 2,060 1,890 1,850 1,730 90.7 9.3
12,850 12,470 12,600 12,620 38.7 61.3
Sales workers 9,450 9,110 8,920 8,810 8,880 62.0 38.0
6,100 6,770 7,570 7,720 7,870 43.2 56.8
3,630 3,210 2,790 2,690 2,690 59.6 40.4
2,370 2,210 2,040 2,060 2,050 95.6 4.4
15,800 14,160 14,320 14,410 76.1 23.9
Laborers 3,100 3,470 3,630 3,700 3,760 57.2 42.8
I would like to make two important comments on the figures in the table: first, the
contribution of women in “clerical and related workers” and “protective service and other
service workers” is immense; second, the integration of women in managerial and high-
ranking positions as well as in transportation and communication sectors is very low.
Another aspect of discrimination against Japanese women in the labour market lies in the
status of employment they have. More women than men are non-regular employees as the
following table shows:
Form of Employment by Sex and Age (2007)*8
57 43 50 50
84 16 56 44
35--44 92 08 44 56
91 09 42 58
74 26 38 62
65+ 31 69 32 68
*Please note that the data in the source is presented in the form of a bar chart. For my convenience, I
have changed the presentation of the data into this table.
The unpleasant reality of having more non-regular female than male employees is that
when companies think of reducing costs, they frequently resort to cutting down on
employees, and often the first of these to pay for such policies are females. It appears that
the stereotypic view men generally hold about women as weak, emotional, talkative, and
dependent contributes a lot to having gender-minded employers. To the latter, with the
stereotypes I have just mentioned in mind, it becomes easier to lay off a female
employee. Thus, the question of social security for female employees, in particular, is a
Today, in Japan, life-time employment is no longer the trend. Instead, nonregularization
has started gaining more and more importance in the world of labour. “Non-regular
worker” is a generic phrase that can refer to part-timers, “albeiters,” fixed-term and
dispatched workers. Big companies in Japan are believed to employ many of these, for,
among other reasons, they are low-paid. Apparently, companies view low wages in terms
of production costs. Moreover, unlike regular workers, non-regular ones do not have
fringe benefits like annual bonuses and health insurance through the employer. So, life
for them is tough.
Another serious problem working women in Japan face is child care. Tradition had it that
men earn money for the family, whereas women take care of children. However, times
have changed so much now that Japanese women either feel forced to work in order to
support the husband or they go out and work in pursuit of financial independence. In both
cases, women sometimes find themselves obliged to quit their jobs for maternal leave or
to focus on raising their children. If they decide to get back to work, the possibility of
getting a full-time job is really limited. Although working women in Japan make massive
effort for the sake of their families, and in fact for the whole country, by juggling
domestic duties with office work, Japanese work customs make it hard for women to
have a family and a job at the same time.
To sum up what I have said thus far, hierarchy, harmony, and gender relationship are all
issues of relevance to the work environment in Japan. When one thinks of hierarchy in
the workplace, s/he will find out that Japan’s period of seclusion and the iron-fist rule of
feudal families are in one way or another still felt at work. I mean by this that many
employees, still feel obliged to go beyond the call of duty at work to satisfy the
management; otherwise, the risk of losing their jobs is all the time out there. This fact
may be helpful in understanding why salaried men are sometimes referred to as
“corporate samurai”—loyalty, hard work, and sacrifice are salient traits they need to
demonstrate at work.
Harmony as I have explained is deeply rooted in Japanese society. In the workplace, it
manifests itself in such events as the bonenkai, sports contests, or the annual cleaning that
coworkers do in their offices.
Talking about gender relationship, it is important to mention that Japanese women still
need to explore their full potential for the equality of employment. No matter how
democratic one may say Japan is, working women here are still in a vast vertical
relationship with men.
. Roger Davies and Osamu Ikeno, The Japanese Mind: Understanding
Contemporary Japanese Culture, (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2002) 43
. Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese
Culture, (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1989) 48-49
. Ibid., Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno, 10
. Samuel Cohen, “Human Capital Theory,” Women and Work: a Handbook, ed.
Paula j. Dubeck and Kathryn Borman (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc.,
. Hiroya Nakakubo, “'Phase III' of the Japanese Equal Employment Opportunity
Act,” 2 November 2008 <http://www.jil.go.jp/english/documents/JLR15_nakakubo.pdf>
. Ames Gross and Rachel Weintraub, “2004 Human Resources Trends in Japan,”
Japan- 2004 Human Resources Trends in Japan, December 2004, Pacific Bridge
Incorporated, 2 November 2008 <http://www.pacificbridge.com/publication.asp?id=28 >.
. “Employed People by Occupation,” Statistics Bureau Home
Page/Chapter 12 Labor, 2008, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications
Statistics Bureau, Director-General for Policy Planning (Statistical Standards)
and Statistical Research and Training Institute, 8 November 2008
. “Form of Employment by Sex and Age (2007),” Statistics Bureau Home
Page/Chapter 12 Labor, 2008, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications
Statistics Bureau, Director-General for Policy Planning (Statistical Standards)
and Statistical Research and Training Institute, 8 Nov. 2008
Japanese employee: face to face with work-related health problems
Japanese workers invest a great deal of effort and time in their work for a better life. To
many foreigners, however, the Japanese worker stretches or is forced to stretch his
physical abilities beyond the limit, and in so doing, he is said to have lost balance
between professional and domestic lives. Cases of work-associated problems like stress
leading to death from hard work and suicide are well-known to the Japanese and
In what follows, I would like to discuss the kind of pressure workers undergo in the
workplace as well as the serious negative effects it has on them. The focus of this part of
the paper is going to be on stress as a serious threat to Japanese employees’ lives and the
way it relates to karoshi and suicide. It is my belief that these topics capture a significant
part of the bleak picture of the situation of employment in Japan.
The World Health Organization defines work-related stress as:
“A pattern of reactions that occurs when workers are presented with
work demands not matched to their knowledge, skills or abilities and
which challenge their ability to cope. When there is a perceived
imbalance between demands and environmental or personal resources,
reactions may include:
• Physiological responses (for example increased heart rate, blood
pressure, hyperventilation, as well as secretion of 'stress' hormones
such as adrenaline and cortisol)
• Emotional responses (for example feeling nervous or irritated)
• Cognitive responses (for example, reduction or narrowing of
attention and perception, forgetfulness), and
• Behavioural reactions (for example aggressive, impulsive behaviour,
When in a state of stress, one often feels tense, concerned, less vigilant
and less efficient in performing tasks.”1
Japanese society is highly competitive and its culture is widely believed to be one of
shame. Having this coupled with the demands of globalization, which Japan is deeply
involved in, employees become easy victims of stress.
To illustrate, on 1 April 2008, a clinic called Tenteki 10 opened in Tokyo’s Ebisu area
to offer medical services to employees suffering from chronic fatigue, insomnia and
stress. What doctors there try to do is to help customers regain vitality by using
Intravenous therapy. The director of the clinic Mr Ryuji Yasumura affirms that many
people in the corporate society are experiencing the above-mentioned health problems.
Makiko Nagahashi of Tenteki 10 says that around 40 employees between 20 and 60
years old go to the clinic for the IV drips every day.2
Nonetheless, Tenteki 10 explains
that the best solution to its customers’ problems is that they try to be aware of how to
take care of their daily health.
Alarming as it is, the American Institute of Stress (AIS) link stress to heart disease and
Researchers of the institute claim that there has been a significant
increase in heart attacks and sudden death due to stress resulting from natural calamities
like earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and floods. They also draw attention to the fact
that people can cause themselves stress by showing “excess anger, hostility,
aggressiveness, time urgency, inappropriate competitiveness and preoccupation with
Stress that gains its intensity from these factors contributes to coronary disease.
Psychologists refer to those people who are impatient, excessively time-conscious, so
competitive, and maniac about work as Type A individuals. These characteristics are
major factors that cause stress which can lead to death. During my stay in Japan, I have
always seen many Japanese employees showing such characteristics as time urgency,
inappropriate competitiveness, and preoccupation with work. Taking the train for a
couple of consecutive days in morning rush hour—between 7 and 8 o’clock—will be
much informative of what time and work mean to the Japanese employee. Even though
the railway system in Japan is highly reliable, in the sense that trains are punctual and
run almost every 4 to 10 minutes, depending on places, one will always see employees
of both sexes walking hurriedly to the train station, some others even running. Another
scene one will see on trains is employees doing their work during the journey to work.
What I infer from that is that probably those employees did not manage to finish work
in the office, so they had to take it home in order to finish it. And the morning journey
to work is a good time for them to check how appropriate that work was done. I believe
that taking work home can largely contribute to an employee’s leading a stressful life.
Employees who suffer intense stress could face very serious consequences of which
karoshi stands out.
2. Karoshi 過労死 (death from overwork):
The National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi (a Japanese association founded in
1988 by lawyer Hiroshi Kawahito to combat karoshi) explains that “overwork and
excessive stress cause health problems, such as cerebral / heart diseases, mental
disorders, and, eventually, death.”5
It is interesting that the term “karoshi,” according to
the association, is now popular in other industrialized countries as well, which may easily
lead one to say that death from hard work is indigenous to Japan. The first case of
karoshi was reported in 1969 with the death of a 29-year-old married man working in the
shipping department of Japan’s largest newspaper company.6
But it was until the late
1980s that karoshi was recognized as a new phenomenon claiming the lives of many
high-ranking as well as low company workers. And from then on, the Ministry of Labour
has been publishing statistics about karoshi.
Boyé Lafayette De Mente, a prolific writer about Japan, reports that statistics released
by Labour Ministry show that there were only 21 cases of death from overwork in
1987, 29 cases in 1988 and 30 cases in 1989.7
In 1990, though, a group of lawyers of
the National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi estimated that the number of
people who were annually dying from overwork was actually more than 10,000.8
Japanese society has started showing more concern about this matter. In its issue of 11
June 2008, The New York Times published some figures showing an increase in the
number of employees who take their employers to court for forcing them to do
overwork, which is largely blamed for heart attack and mental disorders. Journalist
Martin Fackler writes that lawsuits against employers rose by 45% (2,303 cases) from
1997 to 2005.9
That number increased by 21% (2,777 cases) in 2006, which makes it
clear that workers are now more aware of them being exploited and they are more
willing to resort to court for protection. This way of thinking the Japanese worker holds
today runs counter to the feudal-like thinking of showing excessive loyalty to the boss
and suffering in silence.
In an attempt to expose the conditions in which Japanese employees work, Boyé
Lafayette argues that, “because of peer pressure to keep up with co-workers, out-do
competing groups and increase market-share at the expense of competitors, Japanese
managers are caught up in a vortex of psychological pressure that forces them to work
at a frenzied pace.”10
It is this sustained quest for perfection that seems to lead many
Japanese employees to offer costly sacrifices. Still, on the other hand, Kiyotsugu
Shitara, the head of the Tokyo Managers’ Union, says that, “Japanese companies have
used the silence of their loyal employees as a weapon in international competition.”11
and large, Japanese employees have become torn between a culture that promotes the
virtues of hard work and harmony between people, on the one hand, and an ideology
enticing them into prioritizing work over anything else for the common good, on the
Not only does severe occupational stress cause karoshi, but it also leads employees who
have strained themselves to the utmost to take their own lives. Intense extended stress
can cause clinical depression. In that case, a clinically-depressed person would have
very low self-esteem and attach no meaning to his life any more. Without medical
attention, the possibility of him considering ending his life is high.
The Japan Times Online’s Tomoko Otake says that clinical depression is familiar to
Japanese society and that, following the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 1 out of
15 people in Japan suffer from it at some point in their lives.13
Clinical depression is
blamed for the high suicide rate in Japan by more than 30,000 people annually since
1998—the highest in the industrialized world as the chart indicates:
In this regard, it is important to note that occupational-stress-induced suicide constitutes
just a little part of the people killing themselves. According to a Health Ministry report
published in May 2008, the number of people who committed or attempted suicide due
to work-related stress or overwork was 40 in 2003, 66 in 2006, and 81 in 2007.15
report also indicates that 268 people suffered mental sickness. An important conclusion
the report reveals is that employees in their 30s and 40s are more prone to stress
because of companies’ recent introduction of the pay-per-performance system.
The high suicide rate in Japan may be attributed to various factors. Not only has the
economic stagnation of the 1990s in Japan caused social insecurity among Japanese
employees, especially young and middle-aged ones, but also contributed to increasing
the level of stress in them. As I discussed earlier, when stress reaches a peak, it
becomes fatal, either by causing death or by leading one into depression, which is a
stage at which a person may have already started developing suicidal tendencies.
Second, if an employee works in an environment where communication is kept to a
minimum, psychological barriers exist between co-workers, and overwork is the norm
over an extended period of time, suicide, rather than life, becomes more meaningful to
that employee. Needless to mention that communication does have a therapeutic value;
that is why some people earn their living as psychologists. One more important reason
is the fact that Japanese culture has a history that condoned suicide for a long time.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), it was common that a samurai cuts his belly open
to escape his enemies or, rather, shame. In the light of the high rate of suicide, Japanese
people’s attitude to this macabre scene does not appear to have changed much from the
Among the cases of suicide proving that the Japanese still believe in the honourable
death of suicide, I would like to mention the following two:
• On 25 November 1970, novelist Yukio Mishima, driven by nationalistic
motives, committed suicide the samurai’s way—seppuku 切腹.16
• On 28 May 2007, just hours before standing in front of the parliament over
government funds embezzlement charges, Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu
Matsuoka hung himself in his apartment, than later, he was declared dead.17
The fact that neither Buddhism nor Shintoism, which are the religions widely practised in
the country, prohibit suicide could be one more reason why many Japanese people find it
easy to consider or actually commit suicide. I occasionally had discussions about religion
with some Japanese friends and it was clear that it does not really mean much to them.
In 2007, the Japanese government approved a plan to counter suicide. According to the
plan, the government intends to reduce the number of suicides by 20 percent by 2016.18
A 20-percent cut on suicides over 9 years shows clearly how deeply the phenomenon is
entrenched in Japanese society. Sanae Takaichi, the Cabinet minister leading the
suicide prevention campaign, said, “We have to create a society that gives people a
second chance if they fail […] we should all help efforts to save someone considering
suicide and create a more livable society.”
Various reasons are cited to be behind the high suicide rate in Japan. Salient of these are:
• Japanese culture is unforgiving: the Shinto religion considers the soul pure and
infallible, which makes mistakes unfavourably viewed. To disgrace one’s self or
be dishonoured or disgraced are both painful experiences to the Japanese psyche.
When this idea of shame combines with the precepts of the samurai’s severe code
of conduct, which is still alive in people’s memories and somewhat practised,
people become psychologically prepared to consider taking their lives in times of
• Financial as well as health problems: people who cannot pay back their debts,
are suffering or their children are suffering from mental or incurable diseases find
it more comfortable to commit suicide than lead a life of pain or shame that
Japanese society attach to mental diseases in particular, according to my Japanese
• Overwork and severe stress: these two are inextricably linked. Overwork over a
long time period is very much likely to engender intense stress which in turn can
lead to depression.
I believe these are serious problems that the Japanese government needs to address
boldly, for their repercussions are destructive to the whole society.
. Irene Houtman, Karin Jettinghoff, and Leonor Cedillo, “Raising Awareness of
Stress at Work in Developing Countries,” ed. Evelyn Kortum and Stavroula Leka, 2007,
World Health Organization, 24 Nov. 2008,
. “IVs provide quick fix for harried Tokyo office workers,” 5 June 2008, The
Earth Times, 12 Dec. 2008, <http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/210209,ivs-
. “Stress and Heart Disease, Type A Behavior and Heart Disease, Prevention
and Treatment of Heart Disease, Heart Disease and Job Stress,” The American Institute
of Stress, 3 Dec. 2008 <http://www.stress.org/topic-heart.htm>
.Karoshi Hotline National Network, 16 May 2008, the National Defence
Counsel for Victims of KAROSHI, 7 Dec. 2008,
. “Karoshi,” Wikipedia, 7 Dec. 2008, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karoshi>
.Boyé Lafayette De Mente, “Karoshi,” Boyé Lafayette De Mente’s Asian
Business Code words, May 2002, Boye Lafayette De Mente & the Asia Pacific
Management Forum, 8 Dec. 2008 <http://www.apmforum.com/columns/boye51.htm>
. Martin Fackler, “Standing Up for Workers’ Rights in Japan,” 11 June 2008,
The New York Times, 9 Dec. 2008, <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/11/business/
. Boyé Lafayette De Mente, Ibid.
. “Clinical Depression,” University Health Services Tang Center, University of
California, 15 Monday 2008
. Tomoko Otake, “Treating Clinical Depression a Tall Order,” 20 February
2008, The Japan Times Online, 15 December 2008 <http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-
. “Death Be not Proud,” 1 May 2008, The Economist, 18 December 2008
.“Suicide Rate up in Japan,” 25 May 2008, The Associated Press, 16
December 2008 <http://www.nydailynews.com/news/us_world/2008/05/25/2008-05-
. 17 Dec 2008 <http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/mishima.htm>
Japan OKs Suicide Prevention Measures to Cut Deaths by 20
Percent,” 8 June 2007, The International Herald Tribune: Asia-Pacific, 17 December
NEET and Freeter: should they be blamed for the decline of
Japan’s work ethic?
In this final chapter, I wish to look into the employment situation in Japan through two
social phenomena: “freeter” (also referred to as fruita) and NEET. Professor Yuji Genda
of the University of Tokyo explains that “freeter” “refers to young people who are not
regularly employed but who work at one or more part-time jobs or at one short-term job
whereas NEET, as defined in Wikipedia, stands for unmarried people
between 15-34 years old who are “not currently engaged in Employment, Education or
To start with “freeter”, the term comes from the English word “free” and the German
and it was first used in Japan in the late 1980s, just a little bit
before the burst of the Japanese economic bubble.3
So, the word “freeter” could be
rendered into English as free labourer, in the sense that a “freeter” can choose the type of
work that pleases him, though it is not stable, and time as well as the period to get
involved in that work. Briefly, the “freeter” becomes by necessity a job-hopper.
The term “Freeter” was considered derogatory when the phenomenon of non-regular
work among the youth was first recognized.4
Yet, later, when Japanese economy sank
into recession and many young people failed to find jobs, the phenomenon gained enough
consideration and understanding, so people got to know that “freeter” was a logical
outcome of the ailing economy of the time.
Government statistics show that in 2002, the number of “freeters” was 2.5 million
However, according to the same source, the number in 2001 was estimated to be
4 million if the people seeking regular work were included.6
It is worth mentioning that
the number of “freeters” is on the increase, and it is expected to reach 10 million in
The Japan Institute of Labour classifies “freeters” into three types8
: 1) moratorium: a
young person who does not have any idea of his future career, and therefore, does not feel
prepared for responsibility, 2) dream seeker: this type of person apparently has a dream
of his own and he would like to see it come true. So, here, the dream seeker enjoys his
freedom to choose what he wants for himself, which could be an implicit criticism or
rejection of the corporate system in Japan, 3) cannot help: this type of person has either
failed to find a good job after leaving school, and as a consequence, he satisfies himself
with a low-paying one. Or he has failed to pay his tuition fee, especially in the case of
being of a poor family, and therefore, his employment prospects have gone low.
Following Yuji Genda, this third type probably constitutes the majority of “freeters.”9
“Freeters” “often work at convenience stores, supermarkets, fast food outlets, restaurants,
and other low paying, low skill jobs.”9
In addition, they may sometimes do two part-time
Now, the important question is how the phenomenon of “freeter” evolved into a serious
issue deserving serious attention. Yuki Honda of the University of Tokyo argues that the
post-war society was characterized by close ties between the family, school, and
That is to mean that families spent huge amounts of money on getting their
children a good education, schools on their part were engaged in preparing young future
leaders for the corporate world. The economic boom of the post-war period made it very
easy for graduates to join companies soon after the completion of their studies. What is
more, for business success, companies offered young recruits in-company training. Thus,
finding a job after World War II was much easier than it has been since the economic
bubble burst in the early 1990s.
As Yuki Honda explains, the hard times Japanese companies went through in the 1990s
made them change their recruitment pattern—in stead of recruiting new regular workers,
who consist mainly of new high school and university graduates, they displayed
preference for non-regular workers, like part-timers, dispatched and contract workers.11
Again, the main reason for this preference is that non-regular workers, as I discussed in
chapter 2, are less paid and their employment exempts the employer from offering them
any fringe benefits. Moreover, when companies undergo economic hardship and as a
result of that decide to cut down on payroll costs, terminating the service of non-regular
workers becomes easy.
It is surely incontestable that the great deal of uncertainty that encompassed the Japanese
economy during the 1990s well into the early years of the first decade of the 21st
has left a mixed feeling of hope and anxiety among Japanese youths. The latter are
hopeful since the baby boomers of 1947 and 1949, who brought their country on its feet
after it was devastated in World War II, have now reached retirement age, which means
young employees can replace them as regular workers. On the other hand, however,
young Japanese feel anxious as companies now rarely offer them regular jobs. Another
concern among them is that though they may get full-time jobs, restructuring could lead
to the loss of those jobs. This is part of the reason why they choose to do part-time work.
Young people seem to be in a real dilemma. Many cannot find a steady job on graduating
from university, so they have to accept part-time work. Obviously, while they are
working as part-timers, they keep looking for any opportunity to get a full-time job in
order to enhance their socio-economic security. In pursuit of that quest, they go hopping
from one part-time job to another; hence, they are called “job hoppers.”
It is important to mention that Job hoppers can be young people, who are reluctant to join
the strict corporate world immediately after they graduate, or middle-aged people victims
of corporate restructuring. The serious problem these confront when they change their
jobs is the fact that companies “view job-hoppers as workers who have no sense of
responsibility, no specific or developed skills, and could quit their job at any time.”12
Yuji Genda tells us that in time of recession, job opportunities go scarce, and new
graduates find it so hard to get full-time positions;13
consequently, Japanese youths find
themselves doing jobs that do not meet their aspirations, which makes it easy for them to
quit them for other jobs in case of a minor trouble at work. In economics, this kind of
dissatisfaction is known as “mismatch,” as Professor Genda explains.14
To shift focus to NEET now, I would like to mention that Yuji Genda categorizes this
class of people into 2 groups: “non-job seekers” with a desire to work, but do not search
for jobs (numbered 426,000 in 2002), and “non-job seekers” showing no desire to join the
workforce (421,000 in 2002).15
The latter group may be described as demotivated.
However, Ames Gross and Rachel Weintraub offer another detailed classification of
The first group concerns the youth who withdraw from society, 2) young people
who drop out of school or those that choose to lead a carefree lifestyle with friends upon
graduation, 3) university graduates who find it hard to decide on their careers, and 4)
young people who had a full-time job but quit it for lack of confidence. A large number
of NEETs are said to depend on their parents for their needs, even if those parents start
living on a pension. The fact that parents are usually protective encourages NEETs not to
engage in the labour market and keep being financially dependent on them.
Scholars have been trying to determine the reasons why the number of NEETs is high.
For example, Professor Akio Inui of Tokyo Metropolitan University states that the
educational background of young people is crucial to any understanding of this
phenomenon. According to her, and supported by Professor Genda, the lower the
qualifications of the youth are, the likelier that the latter become part of NEET.17
addition, Professor Yuji Genda states that the socio-economic situation of families also
affects the future of young people. He explains that those youths coming from poor
families are more prone to become NEETs than those that come from rich ones. To
clarify, here are some statistical data by Professor Genda18
• Rich families with an income exceeding 10 million yen per year:
o In the 1990s, more than 20% of these families had “non-seekers”
o The proportion of rich families with “discouraged” jobless youths fell
from 23% in 1997 to 14% in 2002.
• Poor families with 3 million yen per year or less:
o The number of the jobless in these families regularly exceeds the number
of all the population of 15-34 year-olds.
o From 1997 to 2002, there was an increase in young jobless people in poor
o The number of “discouraged” NEETs was remarkably high in families
with annual incomes less than 3 million yen, and they were expected to
reach 40% by 2002.
These data show that NEET is more prevalent among the youth coming from poor
families than those from rich ones.
What is more, the number of NEETs is high due to the working conditions in companies.
Many NEETs, Professor Genda explains, gave up searching for jobs because they either
failed to find any (probably because of their educational background) or they found jobs
that did not match their aspirations.19
What exacerbates the situation is the fact that
companies now rarely employ young people as regular workers.
Not only do NEETs demonstrate a lack of confidence in their knowledge and abilities to
work for companies, but they also seem to show apprehension at the probability that they
may become sick if they work for companies. The latter are well-known for requiring
much hard work which could lead to ill-health among employees.
To summarize, both “freeter” and NEET are the byproduct of the harsh system of the
corporate world in Japan. Basing my conclusion on what I have read and remarked, I
expect these two social phenomena to weaken the characteristics of perseverance, loyalty,
and competitiveness that have long marked Japanese work ethic. “Freeters” feel
frustrated by the fact that they cannot find good jobs that will guarantee their social
security—a feeling exacerbated by their recognition that if they do not find a full-time job
in their 30s or probably 40s, they will spend the rest of their lives changing jobs. As to
NEETs, they already feel frustration and disappointment about the fact that they cannot
find steady jobs. Their educational background, on the one hand, and the attitude they
hold about the Japanese work system, on the other, make their employability very low.
The only jobs they can find are menial. I think the decline of work ethic in Japan is
broadly a shared responsibility of the corporate world and the change in young people’s
aspirations. However, it is important to remember that there is nothing more damaging to
a country’s future than sowing the seeds of despair and frustration in its youths. Ideals of
perseverance and loyalty do not thrive in a climate of social insecurity and frustration.
Yuji Genda, A Nagging Sense of Job Insecurity: the New Reality Facing
Japanese Youth, Trans. Jean Connell Hoff, (Tokyo: the International House of Japan, Inc,
. Ibid., p.52
. Reiko Kosugi, “Youth Employment in Japan’s Economic Recovery: ‘Freeters’
and ‘NEETs’,” 11 May 2006, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Asia Pacific, 6 January 2009
. Ibid., 7 January 2009
. Yuki Honda, “‘Freeters’: Young Atypical Workers in Japan,” The Graduate
School of The University of Tokyo, 7 January 2009 <http://www.jil.go.jp/english/
. “Freeter,” June 2007, Wikipedia, 7 January 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/
. Yuki Honda, Ibid.
. Ibid., 8 January 2009
. Ames Gross and Rachel Weintraub, “2004 Human Resources Trends in Japan,”
December 2004, Pacific Bridge Incorporated, 11 January 2009
. Yuji Genda, p.57
. Yuji Genda, “Jobless Youths and the NEET Problem in Japan,” 2007, Oxford
Journals, 11January 2009 <http://newslet.iss.u-tokyo.ac.jp/ssj32/ssj32.pdf>.
. Ames Gross and Rachel Weintraub, Ibid.
. Akio Inui, “Why Freeter and NEET are Misunderstood: Recognizing the New
Precarious Conditions of Japanese Youth,” 2005, Social Work and Society, 11 January
. Yuji Genda, “The NEET Problem in Japan,” September 2005, Newsletter of the
lnstitute of Social Science, University of Tokyo, 11 January 2009 <http://newslet.iss.u-
. Ibid., 13 January 2009
Throughout this paper, I have tried to give a clear picture of the work situation in Japan.
Towards attaining the objective, I examined such important work-related aspects of
Japanese culture as bushido, overwork, rice cultivation, hierarchy, and harmony, before I
could proceed to explore the consequences these have on Japanese workforce.
I have argued for the fact that the history of feudal Japan, with all the strict rituals the
rulers of the time upheld, is still reverberating in Japanese society. Whether the tenets of
that system will stand the test of time or not may be open to debate. In what follows, I
would like to share some concluding comments about what I dealt with in my paper.
The meteoric rise of Japan to world imminence after World War II attracted the attention
of the whole world. The question then was how did Japan do it? The answer was hard
work in an extended sense of the phrase (from spending long hours at work, sacrificing,
to good education). When the very country sank into recession in the 1990s, again the
question was how did it happen? In fact, what matters more to me is not the cause of the
recession, but its socio-economic effects, like unemployment.
The claim of this paper is that the Japanese no longer cling dearly to the ethic of hard
work and perseverance just as their predecessors did. In my view, among the reasons
behind this change is the fact that Japan is now living in an era of development which is
completely different from the past stages of building the nation strong. That is, the
motivation to work hard or the need to realize the benefits of hard work is not as strongly
felt as before. In the past, the Japanese worked so hard for survival as well as to
strengthen their economic and technological might. The situation today is that Japan
possesses the second GDP in the world and has become a leading technological country.
The second important factor that contributed to the decline of Japanese work ethic is
probably the 1990s’ recession and the socio-economic problems that unfolded in its
wake. Young people in Japan are criticized for supposedly being lazy and leading a
carefree lifestyle. But the reality of employment in the country is rather harsh: young
people want to feel socio-economically secure, but they are seriously challenged in their
pursuit of that objective. In today’s interconnected world, Japanese companies need to
show enough understanding of these people’s concerns and aspirations. I believe that
they should allow more young people access to full-time employment. Moreover,
companies need to establish a very close rapport between management and employees; in
my view, the more employees feel they are consulted in running the company, their views
are taken seriously, and that the management uses an exploitation-free approach towards
work, the more it succeeds in winning the hearts of its employees and thus gets the
Another stern issue that both Japanese government and companies need to address
properly is overwork. I think that what should matter more to the business world is
efficiency at work. The success of a certain company should be measured by the quality
of work it does, not mainly by the long hours its employees spend in offices. I would like
to suggest the following as important points for the enhancement of working conditions
which could lead to efficiency at work:
• Companies should stick to the 8-hour-per-day work volume stipulated by the
Standard Labour Laws. Sound mind and body necessitate enough rest.
• Recruiting new employees in case the company is short-staffed.
• Every employee should be assigned a position meeting their professional
• Regular training of employees guarantees lasting business success.
• Companies should always strengthen trust and goodwill between employees and
• Japanese government should enact strict laws to protect employees from
exploitation and work-related health problems and create effective mechanisms to
make sure that those laws are abided by.
• Require companies to give free medical checkups to their employees twice a year,
and reports of the checkups must be sent to the local authorities in the territory
where the company operates.
To get back to the issue of the decline in work ethic, I think that the unfavourable attitude
of NEETs as well as Freeters towards work makes one believe that Japanese work ethic
is collapsing. These two groups are probably victims of the 1990s economic turndown in
Japan. The fact that Japanese society is aging rapidly and that birthrate is very low makes
it necessary for the government to address the issue of unemployment and non-regular
employment in a proper way. The work attitude many young people hold in the country is
detrimental to the future prosperity of Japan. I believe that:
• Japanese government needs to establish national centers to help young non-
regular employees obtain professional skills, since these are essential for regular
jobs. What is more, collaboration between the centers and business actors is vital
to any successful re-engagement of non-regular workers into social life.
• Schools should motivate students to see their employment through education. I
think it would be a nice idea to organize summer camps for high school students
in particular in order to prepare them for the world of work.
Another issue of equal importance is the imbalance existing between males and females
at work. It is my contention that the vertical relationship between both sexes is largely
cultural. In so being, minimizing its negative effects, if not solving the whole problem,
takes much time and serious effort from the government (in the form of enacting and
enforcing laws), the media (by sensitizing the public to the damage caused to the whole
society when females’ contributions are sidelined), school (by teaching students how the
building of the future of nations should be the task of all the segments of society without
any restrictions), and parents (by treating their children fairly irrespective of the sex).
By and large, I feel hesitant to say that Japanese work ethic is on the decline for a cogent
reason. If I admit to the existence of a morality crisis affecting employment and then lay
the blame entirely on the youth, I will be unfair. Companies have their own share of that
blame since their employment practices are frustrating and somewhat exploitative. I
sincerely hope that the business community in Japan manages to crack down the
psychological barrier that keeps it away from aspirant employees of both sexes.