Is Japan’s cradle-to-grave work ethic changing?

Sanne van Oosten

Japan, the land of volcanoes, temples and… ridiculous working hours. The average salary man (yes, it is usually a man) has a sixty hour working week as the norm, and often works even more than that. Add on a serious commute and that average salary man has an average of… no social private or family life whatsoever. In fact, when doing a google image search for the terms “Japanese salary men” you’ll find various pictures of men in suits sleeping on the strangest places.

The reason why Japanese employees are said to work so hard is because the commitment to a company is usually a life-long commitment. Once you start as a recent graduate at a company, you are expected to keep on working there until you retire. This is said to ensure loyalty and commitment to the company, making people more inclined to work such long hours at the cost of their own lives.

The Dentsu Study for Human Development employed a large-scale survey asking people how much importance they attached to their work. In the United States 34.5 percent of the respondents that their work was either important or somewhat important to them. In England 44.2 percent answered as such. But in Japan a staggering 90.8 percent answered that their work was either important or somewhat important to them. This importance is reflected in their immense loyalty to their employer and the number of hours they are willing to work for their employer.

Many people have criticized this extreme work ethic, but there is also a new development going on in contemporary Japan that needs to be added to this criticism. Since the financial crisis that started in 2008, many Japanese companies can no longer ensure that their workers will be able to continue to be employed until their retirement. The economy is changing and people need to switch employment to accommodate this change. The average salary man is no longer sure if he will be able to work at his company until retirement and there are signs that this is changing the notorious Japanese work ethic.

Now the Japanese no longer know for sure if they are going to be able to work for their company for all their lives they aren’t sure if they are really willing to sacrifice their personal lives for this company. Loyalty works two ways. The salary men were willing to commit to lifelong loyalty to their employer because they knew that they would probably receive lifelong loyal treatment from their companies as well. Not only that loyal treatment is fading away, the loyalty from the employee’s side is also declining.

Interestingly this is the exact opposite from what is happening in Europe. Since the financial crisis, job security has also gone down. Therefore, European employees who are generally known to have a much more relaxed working ethic than their Japanese counterparts go the extra mile for their company. Need me to work over the weekend? You betcha, as long as I don’t lose my job. It seems like through this financial crisis the working ethics of the Japanese and Europeans are becoming more alike.

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