Japan Today

Despite hardworking image, are Japanese just as lazy as the rest of us?

By Evie Lund, RocketNews24

Workers in Japan are often perceived by the rest of the world as possessing an extremely strong work ethic, which drives them to daily acts of unpaid overtime, selfless sacrifice of rightfully accrued holiday time, and occasionally even to karoshi, or death by overwork. So pervasive is this perception that the image of the exhausted salaryman splayed out across train carriage floors after a hard day’s work has become a sort of unofficial symbol of Japanese working life.

But what people who have actually worked in Japanese offices will tell you is that, while simply existing in the strict hierarchical system of a Japanese workplace can be an exhausting feat in and of itself, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody’s getting loads of work done. In fact, Japanese workers may be just as lazy as the rest of us. So how come everybody still thinks they work so hard?

To try to break down the reasons why Japanese people aren’t actually doing as much work as we in the west think they do, we’re going to talk about three misconceptions about Japanese working life, and the ways in which they are kinda false.

Misconception 1: Japanese workers never take holidays; therefore they must work hard

It’s common in Japan to only get around 10 days paid holiday a year to begin with, but most of those paid holidays end up going unused, not because people are denied when they try to take them (they’ve earned ‘em, after all) but because in general nobody ever even asks to take them.

Why it’s false:

The perception is that Japanese workers voluntarily give up paid vacation days because they would much prefer to work. Not only is this not true, it gives too much credit to workers’ dedication and fails to address the real reason why nobody wants to take paid holiday – peer pressure.

Taking paid holiday means leaving coworkers to pick up your slack, which is a total no-no in Japan’s group-oriented society. Also, since getting ahead at a company in Japan relies so much on how you behave, nobody wants to look like a slacker who would rather be sipping beers on a couch somewhere than hard at work. There’s also the fact that asking to take paid holiday usually means directly petitioning your supervisor, who only has to raise an eyebrow to let you know in no uncertain terms that they consider your request to be the ultimate in bare-faced cheek.

Also, Japan actually has a hefty amount of public holidays. There’s a week at the end of the year, Golden Week, Obon, and numerous stand-alone national holidays which pop up practically every month. With another tantalising national holiday always just around the corner, it’s easier to just hang on until then rather than specifically ask for paid holiday. Basically, while it’s true that people aren’t taking their paid holidays the way they probably ought to be able to do, it’s not necessarily because they’d rather be at work or don’t wish they could use them.

Misconception 2: Japanese workers do loads of overtime; therefore they must work hard

“I would never want to work in Japan, because Japanese office workers don’t get home until midnight!” is something I hear a lot from friends back home. Certainly the Japanese seem to be doing quite a bit of overtime, and the last train is usually stuffed full of near-comatose salarymen and office ladies.

Why it’s false:

Working more hours doesn’t necessarily mean working harder, especially in Japan where it’s a common sight to see people stretching out small tasks and generally faffing around in order to try to spread the normal amount of work they have across a full day and into the overtime hours. This can be attributed to two factors: peer pressure again, and, secondly, wanting more money.

Companies that offer paid overtime usually find that their employees take them up on it, every single day. After all, that’s extra money you could be bringing home in today’s tough economy, and since nobody seems to actually care if you’re working or not as long as you’re on the clock, then why not spend the evening goofing around at your desk and making bank for it? Unpaid overtime is a whole different kettle of fish, and is usually undertaken for simple reasons such as “everybody else is doing it” and “I couldn’t possibly go home before the boss without bringing shame upon my entire family and getting daggers from my workmates.”

While the Japanese might well be spending more time at work than people in other countries, it’s not necessarily true that they’re being more productive. With the average day including endless, pointless meetings, verging on voluntary bureaucracy, filing of entirely unnecessary paperwork, and sneaking naps at your desk, it’s amazing that some people in Japan get any work done at all.

Misconception 3: Japanese workers are exhausted all the time, therefore they must work hard

Those poor salarymen slumped on street corners, so exhausted they’ve somehow lost control over their own bodies and on occasion a few articles of clothing too. That poor office lady snoring and drooling on everyone’s shoulders on the last train of the night. They must just be run ragged at work.

Why it’s false:

As we mentioned above, it’s pretty common for workers in Japan to try to conserve energy during the day by not getting especially stuck into their work. Then, in the evening, it’s all nomikai, or drinking parties, and schmoozing, a vital part of staying part of the work group and getting to know the right people in order to further one’s career and be looked upon favourably by the boss.

Maybe those people on the train aren’t tired out from working – maybe they’re tired from compulsory socializing. That’s not to mention the huge quantities of booze that are required to lubricate these post-work social engagements. Conbini shelves are stuffed full of supplement drinks in order to keep exhausted post-work partiers going longer, and to help alleviate the inevitable hangover symptoms. We can’t deny that long days full of work-stretching and drinking with the higher-ups isn’t exhausting, but does it result in hard work and getting things done?

With evidence now suggesting that it’s actually the Americans who are working the hardest in the world (as reported last year by ABC News), is it perhaps time for the myth of the hyper-diligent Japanese worker to be debunked, once and for all?

Source: Yurukuyaru

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Four Tokyo “Nap Cafes” Where You Can Go for a few Winks (So You Aren’t Caught Falling Asleep at Work) -- Don’t like drinking with the boss? No Promotion For You! -- Nine reasons why Japanese men hesitate to say “I love you”

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I'm guessing the guy in the picture's situation has a lot more to do with alcohol than working overtime.

12 ( +14 / -2 )

I heard from my Japanese friends that they do actually stretched their work duties, and are doing overtime by doing nothing, pretending they are working. Well still though there must be something in it, that so many Japanese people commit suicide.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

There was a very good Facebook video being passed around by my friends, I wish I had the link.

In it, a comedic talent imitates first a Japanese salesman, then an American salesman (the comedian, by the way, is foreign).

From the video presentation itself, you would think the video was a major praise of the organized, polite, hard working Japanese style and a lambasting of the slovenly, impolite American.

However, the video finishes with a very clear point. The American worker, for all of his disorganized mess and supposed inefficient work, produces on average $60/hour at work. The Japanese worker produces about $40.

That's where the difference lies.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

Where is the part about staying at work or away from home due to the nagging wife/wild kids at home?

7 ( +9 / -2 )

It really depends on the industry. I know people in finance, insurance, energy who say they are stressed out of their minds by the amount of work they have, whereas others I know in tech, logistics, pharma say that some days they have literally nothing to do. Obviously inside each industry it depends on the company and time of year, etc., but I would agree that Japanese are likely not the hard workers they're made up to be. Anyway, to relieve work pressure off people, more women need to enter the workforce full time

4 ( +7 / -3 )

Remove 'are' and the question mark from the title and you have your answer.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

I would challenge the myth the 'rest of us' are 'lazy'.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

I feel like this article just serves to perpetuate, rather than challenge, the myths and beliefs around Japanese work culture.

I still just want to know who the hoards of people I see leaving their offices at around 6pm everyday are and where they are going. Traveling from central Tokyo out to the northern wards/Saitama for overtime? For nomikais? Or maybe they're all going home at a perfectly reasonable hour.

And I think the main problem with annual leave is rather the extremely small amount that most companies allocate. I have just 10 days here (compared to 25 in the UK). I know many in Japan will have more, especially if they've been in their companies for many years, but the point is: with such a small allocation, it's little wonder few people take long holidays.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

A few people like to work hard, and do. Most just in it for the pay and benefits. Private sector is not nearly as bad as public, in my experience on both sides of the line. Big disappointment after all the rah-rah civics-lesson stuff you hear growing up within the educational establishment, but there it is. Don't see why Japanese should be any different.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Its good to be gaijin in Japan then for the most part you don't have to do all this utter life wasting non-sense, do your job & bugger off!!

The long hours doing nothing & not taking much if any real holidays, they if you survive to retirement age the financial front is likely dim & if your married the mrs likely will NOT be happy with you hanging around................what an awful way to live "life"

Us gaijin have much more freedom in Japan, its a BIG reason why I stayed, I never would/could have if I lived the "life" of a typical salaryman, how depressing!

7 ( +8 / -1 )

This article is spot on. Having worked in J companies, I will agree that many Japanese dont have a hard work ethic, but like in many other sectors of life, they have the outside world fooled bywhat appears to be hard work. its is not work at all, however, instead its obligation and its enforced by the conformity rule that governs all aspects of Japnaese life. So the newbie gaijin comes to Japan to "hustle" Seen it before but that isnt rewarded so much in Japan. Its one reason there isnt any tips given to table bussers etc. Ones initiative or hustle is to be boxed up. Instead your inner self is squashed. Conformity, dependance, blind obedience to your senior along with herd suffering mentality are instead rewarded. Its almost a complete reversal of how things are done elsewhere. So the outsider hasnt took off their native glasses yet to see what is really going on; their filtering their own culture through their lens. You have to jump in get swallowed up by it and spit out to really understand it. But they get so much accomplished and are world economic power! Well if everyone in your company worked for free 2 - 4 hours everyday, was overstaffed, could not fire anyone, and hired them for life with government subsidies, combined with a master/servant relationship dynamic of blind drones, there would bound to be progress. I guess plantation owners back in the day got to big fat aristocrats by doing something a bit similar.

3 ( +9 / -6 )

Let me just put it this way - there's a difference between staying at work till an ungodly hour & being productive enough to leave within a reasonable time. That's why we have the good ol' 9 - 5. No one wants to be there past 5 o'clock, so they work their behinds off to get out on time. That just doesn't happen here.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

GWFEB. 13, 2015 - 06:02PM JST Its good to be gaijin in Japan then for the most part you don't have to do all this utter life wasting non-sense, do your job & bugger off!!

I don't know if I agree. Personally, approximately 1/3 of my lifespan is going to be spent working, so I want to be proud of what I've accomplished in that time. I've known far too many foreigners here who meticulously stick to their contracted hours by never taking on work harder than what they know how to finish. So while it's true they never end up staying late, they also never learn to do their job any better than they did initially. There's no growth, no skills development, just the automation of a routine. They end up resenting their jobs and living for the weekend, which is no way I want to live.

Which means when they inevitably get sick of their job (or Japan) and I take over for them, all the Japanese staff around them (now me) are used to the idea that the foreigner is some kind of incompetent infant who can't be trusted to complete the simplest tasks, because whatever "Johnny" or "Alice" was in the chair before me couldn't walk five paces without falling on their own face or threw an enormous tantrum because they got asked to do something productive to justify their salary. We end up stuck in a cage built out of low expectations, having to constantly justify our basic competence. All because whatever foreigner came before us had a hissy at the prospect of staying after for 45 minutes once in a while. I wouldn't want to live like the typical Japanese salariman, but apart from a few hard-working foreigners I deeply respect I wouldn't want to work like a lot of the foreigners I've met here either. A dead-end with lots of free time isn't really any better than a dead-end with none, at least in my opinion.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

Well said, 5 petals. In Japan I have waited with everyone else for the principal to give permission to leave. Clock crawling towards 1900, people making a show of 'looking busy' until the passive-aggressive old fart gave the grunt and nod. It served nothing except to annoy and exhaust the staff who had arrived early to conduct club activities before the morning staff meeting and classes.

In Canada my classes started at 0830. (Staff meetings once a month.) I could arrive to prep materials anytime after 0700 when the doors opened. No clubs unless I volunteered to organize them. Classes ended at 1443. If I had a medical or other appointment I could be out of the parking lot at 1445 without having to ask permission like a child. (Though that was not my normal practise.)

Any preparation and evaluation that I still needed to do, I could do at home in the comfort of my own rooms and relax with a glass of wine. Or (as I preferred) between 0500 and 0630 when all was quiet and I was refreshed and at my best. I could enjoy peak productivity as well as self-care in the form of exercise, pleasurable hobbies and restorative down time in the evenings.

I served on numerous staff and district committees, regularly organized large-scale events with budgets of $30,000 to $80,000, and much more. All of it without direct supervision of anyone and without anyone having any say in when I could come or to.

If I needed sick days I could take them. This I rarely did because I didn't need to. And if I did require sick leave, I didn't need a doctor's note for an absence 10 days or under. I was trusted. (Novel concept.) I also didn't have to be a martyr like my Japanese counterparts who go in with fever and flu. I didn't have to spread it to my co-workers or to the detriment of my own wellness.

Generally, employees who are empowered, respected and rewarded for work well done work hard. There will always be lazy slackers on any staff in any culture; however, forcing staffs to look busy and work while sick and not utilizing half its workforce has hurt Japan's economy and will continue to do so. But <nudge-nudge wink-wink>don't expect anything to change.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Japanese prob have the best work ethic in the world. Im American so I strongly beleive in the "work hard, play hard" concept. Perhaps that lifestyle isn't in the DNA of average Japanese men. Oh yeah, American workers usually complain a lot, but Japanese never complain.

Great article.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )


I have no idea what your line of work is, but in any line there will be good workers, poor workers & a few stars. Here is the thing for most there is ZERO reason not to be finished working in most office type work by 1600-1800hrs MOST of the time, if your staying late all the time sorry YOU must be doing something wrong or your doing other peoples jobs.

So I would not be surprised if foreigners find themselves in a crappy work environment that they DO SOMETHING about it, not stay & it sap your very soul! Now having said that there are also people who are just screw-ups & make others jobs more difficult, problem in Japan with Japanese is they STAY & CANT BE FIRED so for years, decades they drag everyone down, I see it all the time.

Take a GOOD read of philly1's post above they NAIL what a decent work environment is all about, hint its not about wasting your life away in some office day in day out after 1700hrs year in year out, once that time is GONE you cant get it back, just sayin!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Just to add one more face to this, from someone who has worked in 2 Japanese offices in Kyoto, I find the extended hours needed for work and lost productivity come from the time needed to make decisions, even the smallest and most menial things. The whole nemawashi thing. That said, you can gain some of that back through fewer mistakes made down the road because a lot of what they've corrected me on seems menial, but it has forced me to strive for perfection rather than just getting something done efficiently. Looked at another way, I think Japanese companies play better defence, American/western companies play better offense, with the latter being more exciting and satisfying, but not necessarily better in the long term (some exceptions being in the world of IT and such). I work at a fairly conservative company now and on the few days when i do stay late to finish something, I see most of my co-workers go home at 6-6:30pm (unpaid overtime). My previous company had most people leaving by 8 (paid overtime). Of course that's just my own personal experience, but i wonder if some of those myths of people going home late are over exaggerated and somewhat maintained from the bubble era when there was an extreme amount of work to do.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The Misconception about Misconception 1: "It's common in Japan to only get around 10 days paid holiday a year to begin with"

This is false. It is not "common" to get 10 days. ONLY workers who have been employed full-time for their first 1.5 years get 10 days. After this the number of days increases by government mandate every year (NOT at the digression of the employer) so workers at a company for 6.5+ years are entitled to TWENTY (20) paid vacation days per year on top of the national holidays. That's 4 weeks!

And another tid-bit: Part time employees are entitled to paid vacation days too, so all you workers coming in at 29.5 hours per week still get days off.

Also, the unused days (for both FT/PT) can either be rolled over to the following year (but must be used within that extra year) OR an employer MUST pay back the employee for the vacation time unused (100% for FT, about 60% for PT)

Why is it so very few people (including the writer of this article) know this? I can tell you that if you do not ask your employer, they also are not required to give you more than what you assume. And if it is a small company, they may even play ignorant if confronted with this information. But it is the law and is not negotiable in a contract: all employees are entitled to paid vacation on an increasing scale, and if you don't use it you should be getting paid additional for it.

There is very little info on this in English, but any municipal office has it all in free Japanese pamphlets, usually on a rack in the employment areas. But for a basic guideline, here is something in English made by the Nagoya government but applicable to anyone working in Japan: http://www.nic-nagoya.or.jp/en/e/archives/350

4 ( +5 / -1 )

With another tantalising national holiday always just around the corner, it’s easier to just hang on until then rather than specifically ask for paid holiday

hahahaha, really? So let me think, should i put in for a weeks holiday and spend some time with my family or maybe take a trip around Japan or even abroad. NO i'll wait until next month when i get a single day off, often in the middle of the week where i'll drive to an appropriate "famous " spot for that time of the year along, get stuck in a huge traffic jam, waste money on armfuls of omiyage then trudge back to work the next day! .......tantalising indeed.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

My Japanese boss needs an excuse to escape his wife and home even on Sundays while looking around to other work places he is not alone. Long chatting after work, wondering around at work place is quite common here.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It is the groveling effect.

For every 5 steps I take, a Japanese takes 7. Makes them look like they are hustling but I get there first.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )


All fine & dandy, but do you think most J-companies DO what they are supposed to do. Do you think its EASY for J-employee's can easily ask for & receive whats rightfully their's???

My guess is answers No & NO! are the most common.

So as usual PERCEPTION is more important than REALITY.

So it still SUCKS to live the salaryman life

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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