There is a lot focus in the past decade on Asia, especially in terms of where the world economy is headed. From the “pivot to Asia” of the US military to the international companies clamoring to try to break into the massive potential of the Chinese market there is a huge need to understand Eastern culture and norms. However, many often overlook the developed, safe and relatively prosperous country of Japan to see what we can learn in terms of the differences between our attitudes and values without the political factors necessarily getting in the way.
There are deep differences that separate the way work and employees are treated in Japan that are key to understanding the current economic situation there and the lack of growth seen in the past few decades that have serious implications for westerners who are looking to get a cultural leg up and embrace the work cultures of the East that will become more important to understand in the coming decades.
Work Culture and Productivity
30 years ago, the dream of most middle class families in Japan was to get their children to work as a salaried employee of one of the large international companies of Japan. There are very specific reasons for this, that produced intense competition among younger people for the few slots that were available every year at companies like Toyota, Sony and Mitsubishi.
The salarymen of these companies were essentially guaranteed employment for life and were able to enjoy benefits such as housing allowances, recreation facilities, life insurance, bonuses and pensions. In return for these benefits, they were expected to show total devotion to the company in the form of forgone vacation days, taking as little personal time as possible during the week and socializing with coworkers when not at work.
According to a Japanese government study, 22% of Japanese work 49 hours a week or more, compared with 16% of US workers and 11% in France and Germany. In workaholic industries like banking, where hours are long across the developed world, Japanese salarymen will typically pull 14 hour days 5-6 days a week. There is always a way we can do more or better is the thinking behind this, it is part of the culture of self-improvement that is prevalent in Japan and part of the perfectionist mentality that sets many Asian cultures apart from Western ones. There are great benefits in terms of the quality of work when it comes to this type of mentality. Presentations are long but well researched and big decisions are not made until weighing a number of potential outcomes and minute details that may not even occur to most workers who encounter the same issues.
You would think from all the time, spent in the office, that employees would be leaps and bounds ahead of other countries in terms of productivity and output per employee. However the opposite is the case when measured. As The Economist recently pointed out, Japan actually has the lowest level of productivity (GDP per hour worked) at $39 of all the developed (OECD) countries and a bit more than half $62 of the productivity per hour of a US worker. So what gives?
The answer is that cultural norms that from the outside looking in, make it look as if the Japanese are some kind of super workers when in reality they are bogged down by extremely unproductive and time wasting tasks. What time wasting tasks are these?
Consensus Building – Most decisions are made by consensus building across a team and across an organization. Despite this, managers are looked at as feudal lords who employees are almost always allowed to say no to. The problem arises if one manager does not agree with another manager, underlings must create presentations which require data, charts and detailed explanations which likely have to be tailored in their presentation to the managers liking. Presentations may be reviewed by a lower level manager multiple times in order to meet the standard of his higher up for which he may be more familiar. I have heard stories of people in Japan who spend all day and night making multiple detailed reports which are sent to multiple managers which leaves them working late into the night with little sleep. The time spent doing reports like this could be reduced considerably by having a standardized reporting for all management. Once presentations are made and questions are answered, discussions between managers for a consensus could also take time.
Competition Within – Instead of having a goal to operate as a seamless organization to meet the needs of customers, many companies have divisions that compete amongst each other. This can lead to information breakdown within the company. This gets especially difficult with international companies in that different geographical offices may have completely independent decision making authority within the same company. This can lead to muddled and half hearted moves into a product or market as there is no clearly defined division of responsibility. In addition this can lead to confusion for customers and clients.
Face Time – The ideal that loyalty and dedication is prized to some degree over results is probably the most damaging in my opinion because it doesn’t put productivity or the customer first. Rather, workers spend their time idling away at seemingly unproductive tasks or spend much of the time distributing work over a longer period than would be necessary to complete it. A while ag I read a Japanese handbook which briefed Japanese tourists coming to the US for the cultural clashes they will encounter upon arrival. In it, it described that Americans consider their time after they leave work to be their own time and that the week days are not necessarily obligated to be ceded wholeheartedly to the company. If you think about it, that is a vast difference in terms of worldview. The idea that your time is not yours 70% out of every week, and that going home to see your family or relax is a selfish decision that defies the wishes of your merciful benefactor, would be considered by many in Western countries, corporate tyranny.
This can also contribute to the sense among many Japanese that Westerners are lazy and selfish. The emphasis on process is nowhere near as strong as it is in Japan, and westerners tend to adhere to the “smarter not harder” philosophy which can seem like an excuse to do less work to a Japanese person. When Japanese workers come to the US many are surprised to find that people have non work related social activities on week days and that people tend to hop from company to company with no sense of long term loyalty. To be fair, these opinions have some truth to them and there are many advantages to the workplace culture of Japan in terms of team building and long term stability, but as we will see below, the costs in terms of mental health and society at large, is high.
The government of Shinzo Abe is admirably trying to change these inefficiencies. They are trying to push companies to require employees to leave at reasonable times and not work every weekend, but changing cultural norms is slow and difficult.
The Results – Saddness
As would be expected, when people spend long hours working on tasks that are not results driven and given little acknowledgement of their individual self-worth, frustration, restfulness and depression can ensue. This may be one factor why The World Happiness Index, Ranked Japan 53rd out of 157 countries. That may not be considered too bad as a whole, however keep in mind that most of the countries on the list get progressively poorer as we move down the list. This makes sense because many of the least happy countries on the list have authoritarian governments that severely limit personal freedom, witness ethnic and sectarian fighting, war or experience any other numbers of political or social extremes that can make daily life extremely difficult for most of the population.
This however, is not daily life for most people in relatively rich countries which is why I am focusing just on those. If we focus on these, Japan is one of the least happy ones. A curious point though is when we examine countries or territories with similar work cultures to Japan such as South Korea or Hong Kong, they fall even lower in the rankings at 58 and 75 respectively.
Besides happiness, the extreme duress that workers are under has manifested itself in a mother from; karoshi or death by overwork. Considering the productivity observation previously mentioned, this has to be one of the saddest and pointless results of overwork and a high stress environment.
These factors affect people’s mental health and a portion of people under this type of stress always find a way to rebel. This may be the impetus behind what has been coined the “grass eating men” or the “herbivore men” who take little interest in the opposite sex and may even be contributing to the population decline that is currently affecting Japan. Some speculate that this may be an act of rebellion against the old generation of post WWII alpha males that dominated Japanese society in the late 20th century.
In fact beyond just the herbivore men, Japan Times blogger Rebecca Milner has provided a break down which goes even further, highlighting men who have no interest in women to the more aggressive and assertive types and everything in between.
With almost one fifth of all the population in the world and 2 of the 4 largest economies in the world, East Asia and its work culture will come to have more and more influence in the coming years. The key for Westerners trying to adapt is to recognize the important differences between this work culture from the West and how worker can adapt without losing their sense of productivity and self in the process.
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