Why do People in Japan Work so Much?

A not-so-gloomy perspective on overtime work in Japanese business culture

am employee in a black suit with a black briefcase on the sidewalk in Japan
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This is a popular question. Unfortunately, it oftentimes has a gloomy aura attached to it. Maybe because if the topic of overtime work in Japan comes up, the next things you know, someone mentions the karoushi phenomenon – death by work, i.e. reaching the extremes of exhaustion and fatigue from overworking oneself that puts an employee’s life in danger.

While there are indeed such cases, and some of them are getting serious resonance, we hope that this article will highlight some facts about long working hours in Japan that will shed some positive light on the situation. So, why do people in Japan work a lot?

The team spirit and loyalty

Some of the widely cited reasons for staying long at work is loyalty to the company and hierarchy in society that prevents employees from leaving their workplaces before their colleagues do, and most importantly their boss. Showing the team spirit and devotion to the company is still at the heart of Japan’s working culture. Thus, no one wants to be the first one to exit the workplace, so they stay in the office. However, it is important to distinguish the working hours and hours spent at work.

In addition to a 40-hour working week, it is legal in Japan to do up to 100 hours of extra work per month.

Office hours vs. working hours

Japan has a standard working week of 40 hours, which is the more or less usual length for many countries. To track office time many companies use punch-card systems or turnstiles that log workers in and out. However, unlike in some other countries, there are no penalties for staying at work overtime and not punching out at the end of the standard working day. Staying longer hours does not signal a lack of productivity or skills, and bears zero stigma in Japan as opposed to many Western cultures.

Moreover, it is absolutely legal to do up to 100 hours of extra work per month. It might sound horrible, but being in the office does not necessarily mean doing work all the time. Dinners and coffee breaks, chats at the water cooler, visiting bathroom, smoking and other non-work related activities eat up a part of office hours anyway no matter how intensively one works. And workers in Japan do take their time to enjoy these breaks.

Also, Japan has a lot of bureaucracy on all levels. A huge amount of time will be spent printing and faxing documents, filling in excel tables, tossing around and passing folders along the departments to collect signatures, and so on. A lot of work will be quite simple and tedious, not requiring great intellectual input as it may seem, making office hours less intense.

After-work activities

In the evening many workers will go out and spend time with their colleagues in bars and karaoke clubs. These after-works are often portrayed as a heavy necessity imposed on employees after extended and very intense working day to entertain clients or show dedication to the team. In fact, most of the time people are spending some fun time together in a relaxed and easy-going atmosphere before heading back home.

To sum up, long working hours in Japan result from spending a lot of time in the office to show one’s dedication to the company. However, the work that otherwise could have been done in 8 hours or less gets spread out across the extended working day resulting in a lower intensity and slower working pace as employees fill the time with longer or more frequent breaks in addition to some routine bureaucratic tasks that also consume a significant part of a working day. Finally, the dreaded compulsory after-work socialization is a fun time with friends in the majority of cases.

"Otsumami" - a bite size snack:

Longer office hours in Japan mean less intensive and slowly paced work.

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Written by Viktoriya Kuzina

Likes business in Japan and helping entrepreneurs become successful.

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