Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Westerners tend to link Japan's workaholic society today to "typically Japanese" traits such as deference to authority and respect for hierarchy, but Kawahito believes this is not the root cause of the problem.

"Japan's current work system is not part of traditional Japanese culture, but a modern phenomenon which developed in order to catch up with Europe and the U.S.," he said. Dying to work: Japan Inc's foreign trainees. Japan Times

Scratch "Westerners" as many Japanese (and other non-westerners) believe this myth too. Substitute "The ignorant."

Thanks to labor lawyer Hiroshi Kawahito and the Lawyer's Network for Trainees for their work in getting the government to actually start to do something in this area.


  1. I don't know that it's ignorance that leads people to believe so. I mean, you're free to label me as ignorant if you want, but I've lived here and talked to a lot of young employed people, and that's the conclusion I've drawn. Maybe it's not as simple as plain "deference to authority" and "respect for hierarchy," but I think the sempai-kohai system falls under one or both of those headings and it is certainly a contributing factor.

    Anyway, yeah, it's an interesting article. Funny, I also zeroed in on that exact excerpt, but with the opposite reaction.

    Keep up the blogging!

  2. I remember reading comments by western vistors to Japan in early Meiji that the country would never become industrialized as the people had no work ethic..... people went to work when they felt like it. Part of the reasoning behind the governmint closing down half the shrines in the country was to reduce the huge number of matsuris that people attended instead of working....

  3. Blue Shoe: I agree you as far as the workaholism is concerned today, but I am looking at it as something that is relatively recent and not something that has been "typically Japanese."

    As Ojisan Jake mentioned, there wasn't much evidence of the workaholic tendency pre-Meiji. It seemed to be about the opposite.

  4. I have had historians tell me that Meiji era people would actually frown upon modern Japanese workaholics. Which would make sense - the Meiji era saw the start of movement (kokugaku) which tried to rid the society of "corrupt" Chinese influences, ie Confucianism and Kango on nihongo etc. Clearly it was still very much part of the society (and is clearly in some morphed kind of way), and a Confucian moral system would certainly lead you to question how much loyalty you were giving to your company as opposed to your family. I am not completely sure like the author that it was something that was solely related to "catching up with the West". Certainly however, Western kinds of thinking had an influence however in directing Japanese respect for authority towards corporations and the government(corporatization, industrialization, nationalism and Western conceptions of state etc). Problem is, that, these institutions tend to be far less considerate of your well being....hence the modern expression...and even this was only made bearable through the sempai-kohai system (which was more of a reciprocal system in Japanese system as compared to its seemingly exploitative functions now for young Japanese!).

  5. Thanks for that, sigma1.

    It is an interesting subject...for me anyway. I am always suspicious of the claims that such-and-such is a part of "typically" Japanese traits, especially when those traits seem to benefit industry and politics more than they do individuals.