The Japanese Work Culture and the Country’s Sinking Economy

The Japanese Work Culture: A reason behind the Country’s declining Economy?Photo: Japan Society of Northern California


People’s working styles have changed dramatically with various technological improvements and newer methods of operation. However, the Japanese hardly seem to be getting out of their traditional work habits. The country which was once one of the most flourishing economies are witnessing a rapid decline year after year. The country has witnessed four recessions since 2008.

japan recession
Covid-19 leaves Japan’s Economy worse than ever

While it would be wrong to completely attribute this decline to the appalling work culture in Japan, it might be one of the major factors restricting the emergence of newer and better ideas and strategies. It is impossible for people to embrace more advanced techniques while they are heavily overworked with no time to brainstorm new ideas.

The Rise of the Miracle Economy: Japan

Japanese work culture has long been characterized by aggressiveness and overload. This culture can be traced back to the 1920s when the country was going through an extensive transformation in terms of industries and military. The country’s national slogan during this period was Fokuku kyōhei which means “Enrich the Country, Strengthen the Armed Forces.” The slogans were a part of the all-out efforts being made in terms of policy formulations to advance the Japanese Society to catch up with the West.

Such meaningful sayings united the efforts of the Japanese and instilled a very strong work ethic and loyalty amongst employees. Japanese, even today are known for their remarkably hardworking and work-committed nature.

World War ll, resulted in Japan reaching a complete low point. The country knew it had to be restructured and rebuilt to catch up with the rest of the world. The war brought an end to the emperor’s rule in Japan and the country shifted to a comparatively more democratic approach of governance. The redesigning of post-war Japan involved massive economic reform, of which many practices were inspired by the American Society.

The country and its people’s dedication and ingenuity along with the government’s assistance completely turned around the shape of the economy from one of suffering to a miracle. Japan not only managed to bounce back from the downfall but also became the second-largest economy in the world (until 2010, then taken over by China).

Ever since these reforms, working at large companies became a prestigious niche for the Japanese. Large corporations actively recruited talented young graduates. This happened all over the country. Children from middle-class families, ever since, have aspired to work for big corporations. Ideally, once placed at a good company, people work there for their entire life.

Japanese Work Culture: A Reality Check

The historical achievements of the country and its economy have undoubtedly affected the generations to come and their working habits. Children in Japan are taught that their ultimate goal is to become a “Salaryman”. The term “salaryman” describes white-collar employees who show exemplary dedication and loyalty to the companies they work for in Japan. Salarymen usually spend an extended amount of time working, drinking with colleagues after work, and are often sleep-deprived.

People often wake up early to reach the office before working hours to get a jump start on work and this is considered absolutely normal. Working five hours extra is just another typical day for a Japanese at work. It is often considered rude for people to leave before their job. No Japanese employee wants to be the first one exiting their workplace.

Image from Flickr user tokyoform

Japanese workers struggle to take time off for themselves being so highly work driven. A study shows how bad the Japanese are at taking paid leaves. In 2016, while Japanese people were entitled to an average of 18.1 days of paid vacation, it was reported that people on average took only 8.8 days of leave, which is around 48.7% of the allowance.

Some of the reasons for the same were “it feels awkward taking days off when others in the office don’t,” “the atmosphere makes it difficult,” “nobody else can do my job,” “duties are not well-defined or quantified, so if I’m away the department’s work doesn’t get done,” and “preparing work so that others can do it is a hassle.”

The country, even after taking much inspiration from Western societies continues to retain some of its traditional beliefs and ideologies. Japanese people have always carried a sense of respect for hierarchies, which they follow to date. Japanese tend to work not just for their own benefit, but believe that collective efforts can benefit everybody in the organization.

However, such a mindset most often results in Japanese people neglecting their personal lives and mental health. As per the Job Happiness Index 2016, Japan was the worst country amongst the 35 countries studied, with Japanese people having the least amount of job satisfaction.

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Japan was the worst performer in terms of Job Happiness Index with the least amount of job satisfaction (2016)

The Japanese work culture can be described as toxic at times, with people often taking pride in and glorifying working overtime. Japan may be one of only a few countries still actively practising overtime working today, with other countries frowning upon it.

Such a work environment has definite adverse effects on people in the country. While working overtime might increase the work done on the same day, it is necessary to keep in mind that people working beyond their threshold point will actually lead to efficiencies. Constant overworking keeps employees unsatisfied for most of their work life.

Diminishing work population: One of the biggest challenges

Japan’s working population has been shrinking over the past years as its elderly population continues to increase. This diminishing work population is one of the biggest causes of the long-term recession that the country is witnessing currently. It has been estimated that the working population will drop from 67 million (recorded in 2016) to 62 million in 2026.

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Source: Yoshino(2013)
Working population to decline in the future as elderly population increases

Working population to decline in the future as the elderly population increases Source: Yoshino(2013) Given the increasing elderly population, the working population which is involved in taking care of the elderly is also leaving jobs. This is because of the non-flexible nature of the working environment. If reforms are made at the workplace to promote taking leaves upon necessity without feeling any guilt or shame for the same, more people of working age will try to find employment. Additionally, there are many working people failing to reach their potentials such as women with children and the elderly.

Some improvement has been made in this regard, as the MHLW has reported that 16.8% of the companies are encouraging people to take paid leaves. This is definitely a good start for the country. Habu Sachiko, who runs the Nikkei Dual website for working parents believes that taking paid leaves has proven to increase productivity and job satisfaction.

Is the 4 days work week reform ideal?

Recently, the country proposed a 4 day work week in its annual economic policy guidelines. The proposal has been made with the sole aim of improving work-life balance in the country and encourages salaried men to spend a lesser, and more rational amount of time at work.

Japan’s economic policy guidelines through its recommendations advise companies to reduce the workdays from five to four. This, according to the policymakers, would encourage people to engage in other social and leisurely activities and in turn drive up their shrinking economy. This will also help companies retain their employees who originally intended to quit their jobs for personal requirements.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a shift in the working style of people, and the country actually noticed an increase in its productivity levels. Work from home/ Remote work opportunities and the flexibility they offer might be the reason behind the same. (Moneycontrol) This should act as a guiding light for companies and reform makers to change their working scenarios for the better and encourage Japanese people to lead a life of increased satisfaction, both at their workplace and at home.

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