Work/Life Balance in Japan

It’s February, and I have lived here for 9 months. Granted, I don’t have a lot of work experience in Japan; however, it’s better than none.  If there is anything I have learned since living here, work/life balance in Japan is truly terrible.  Fortunately, things are changing in Japan, but Japan still has a long way to go.  Before you write this blog off as “another angry foreigner post”, rest assured, I love Japan.  As much as I love talking about the good things, it’s important to talk about the bad as well.  With that being said, let’s dive in!

If you have any serious interest in Japan, you are probably already aware of the crazy amount of over-time required and people dropping dead from being over worked. There is even a Japanese word for it: Karoushi (過労死). Personally, I don’t know anyone who has died from Karoushi; however I do know people who have experienced severe depression from working long hours.

For example, my friend (let’s call her Kana), works at a very big Japanese bank. Like all banks in Japan, it closes at 3:00pm.  After 3:00pm there is work that must be done after the customers leave. According to Kana’s contract, her working hours are from 8am – 5pm.  However, instead of leaving work at 5pm, she normally leaves around 10pm. After, 14 hours of work, she gets home around 11, cooks dinner and take a shower.  By the time she is done, it’s nearly 12:30, and gets ready for bed.  She wakes up at 5:00am and repeats it all over again.  Now, imagine doing that 5 times a week everyday for 40 years.  I was baffled and asked her a series of questions:

Me: If you only have to work until 5:00pm, why do you work that long?

Kana: Because its Japan. That’s how things are done here.

Me: What about time after work? How can you possibly enjoy your life when all you do is work? What about your own personal time?

Kana: I don’t have personal time on the weekdays.  On Saturday I go boxing, and on Sunday I sleep.

This story is actually very tame to other people I know, who have to work overtime even on the weekends.  It left me questioning if I really wanted to move to Japan and work here.  But I thought to myself, “hey, I’m a foreigner.  I won’t have to succumb to that kind of lifestyle”. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Perhaps, I was just unlucky with the company that I went with, but nonetheless it taught me a few things since I’ve been living here.  Growing up in America I was always taught, if you are working at a job, you are entitled to be paid for the work you did.  It’s a simple and fair concept.  However, while working for my previous employer, I was forced to work over-time with no pay.  Initially, I went along with it since I was the new guy and wanted to be on good terms with everyone, but over time I quickly got burned out.  I was forced to do task that were impossible to complete by myself unless I did a lot of overtime.  I would come home exhausted, unable to cook, and sometimes didn’t feel like bathing.  About 3 months working for this company, I realized I shouldn’t be sacrificing my happiness for a job.  At that point, I retaliated, telling my boss I refused to work overtime. Naturally, my boss didn’t take it well, and started treating me coldly.  Ultimately, I left the company to pursue other career opportunities.  It was definitely one of the best decisions I made since moving here, and I don’t regret it.

Now many people will argue, “You don’t live in America anymore.  When in Rome do as the Romans do.”  But if I did follow the crowd, I would become the same as all the soul-less miserable faced people I see everyday on the train. Why should I sacrifice happiness to conform and become a robot of society? Luckily, I’m not the only person who is realizing this.  Other millennials like myself are realizing  this is a horrible way of living and people want to be able to enjoy life.  Things are slowly changing, but Japan is a very stubborn country when it comes to tradition.  For instance, tattoos are still considered as taboo for its relation to the Yakuza.  There has even been an agenda to shut down tattoo parlors across the country; however, that’s a story for another time. My point being, Japanese society has been a very closed-minded society for a long time and it’s hard to break out of old habits.  I love Japan! The pros outweigh the cons, but it’s because  I love Japan that I’m able to call out the problems in its society.  I’m happy to see that some companies such as Rakuten are attempting to change its employee working style to emulate a lifestyle similar to Google.  I love that some companies turn off the lights at 6:00pm to make their employees go home.  I also love that Japan is creating random national holidays to force people to take days off work.  This all shows process. I just hope in the future this way of thinking becomes the majority rather than remaining the minority.


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