Busy Being Busy


Chris Burrows, International Pacific University [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 1 (Discussion Paper 1 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 31 March 2014.


Few nationalities are more renowned for their dedication and embrace of the work ethic than the Japanese. Unquestioned obedience in the workplace, coupled with diligent hard work are some of their most prominent characteristics as a people. The importance Japanese society attaches to these qualities, in addition to equally valued loyalty and subservience to seniors, has culminated in the nation being one of the most work-orientated societies in the world. Although the image is often restricted to the work setting, a socio-religious based work ethic permeates all facets of society, resulting in a nation working hard to be busy.

Keywords: workaholic, hard-working, karoushi, Japanese society.


National stereotypes, based on varying degrees of veracity, from harmless caricatures to negative exaggerations abound for any nationality. For the Japanese, typical generalisations relate to salarymen: office workers distinguished by their diligence and dedication to the collective needs of the company. The Japanese themselves readily confirm the accuracy of the image with mixed emotions—pride in an ability to dedicate themselves selflessly to their workplace, yet recognise that such devotion is not without social and personal repercussions. While consensus exists that the source of this work ethic can be traced back to the country’s collective effort in rebuilding the nation following World War II, in explaining the continued precedence of maintaining such a work-centred society, as with many topics relating to Japan, a superficial understanding only masks much deeper socio-cultural issues. Not unlike other developed countries, commitments to diligence and dedication are clearly valued, yet they also encompass pseudo-ritualistic performances where the perception of ‘doing one’s best’ derives from a socio-religious phenomenon in which effort, not results, demonstrates commitment. It symbolises the ganbare spirit (lit: fighting spirit) where outcome is not the predominant consideration if one’s efforts have been sincere and earnest. To illustrate its influence and exemplification, this paper will first address historical considerations relevant to the formation of work values before reflecting on their modern manifestations.

Naturally hard-working?

The established stereotype of Japanese workers invites the assumption that the moral value of hard work has been a continuum in Japanese society, to the inevitable conclusion that the Japanese are by nature a diligent people. Although the country was perceived during the Edo period (1603-1867) as a sophisticated feudal society with a highly developed cultural identity, historically it had existed as a largely rural one. European observers admired an evolved social structure bound by the moral obligation of self-sacrifice for the community, even during periods of limited supplies of daily necessities. Conditioning such values were the combined influences of religion and metaphysical traditions: the national spirituality of Shintoism emphasises harmony and loyalty to others, while Confucian principles, introduced from China during the 5th and 6th centuries, teach respect and obedience to one’s superiors. This has evolved into an ethic of self-sacrifice which instills a value for one’s effort and has been accepted in Japan as virtuous and self-satisfying. Despite such salient influences, Japan’s development during the early Meiji period (1868-1912) exhibited few of the traits which have come to be associated with modern Japanese workers. Revealingly, at the dawn of the modern era the Japanese were not the selfless workers they are perceived as today. During this period society extolled the value of leisure, and as Kato (1995) points out, many Western observers considered workers unproductive, exhibiting little of the work ethic displayed by today’s workforce. Scherzer (writing in 1858) noted shortly before the Meiji Restoration that the locals appeared much more cheerful, pleasure-seeking, and given to drink, yet showed more aversion to work than the Chinese he had observed while in China. Such observations are supported by a report from the National Institute for Research Advancement, which concludes: “With the exception of a few core workers, the industrial workers of the Meiji period had poor attitudes towards work and were unreliable and usually absent for 10% to 20% of prescheduled work” (1985, p. 78).

The screw begins to tighten

Following the Meiji government’s assumption of power in 1868, nationwide policies were gradually introduced to foster industry and the promotion of military-style discipline among the population. The modernisation process enabled the country to compete with increasingly powerful rivals, and the adoption of coordinated policies aimed at narrowing the economic gap with neighbouring countries remained a priority. This is evident with the introduction of new employment laws that guaranteed public workers designated holidays but attempted to introduce a more uniformed system that reflected the rank and obligation of public officials. More efficacious on individuals’ sense of obligation were the military conflicts with China (1894) and Russia (1904) which saw increased use of manpower to satisfy Japan’s military ambitions. This period witnessed a gradual overall rise in working hours (especially in industries related to military procurement), with a corresponding decline in absenteeism, and occurred as a more rigid education system and compulsory military service began to be implemented. Restoration of the emperor as head of government led to the revival of Shinto as the national religion which facilitated the imposition of doctrine through religious instruction. According to this doctrine the sovereignty of the emperor derives from a divine right as descendent from the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami. Various paryies exerted efforts to suppress individual Shintoism as values of harmony were superseded by a state Shintoism which harnessed nationalism and religious fervour as legitimisation for militaristic and political pursuit. Through nationalistic sentiments the ideology of a superior race and a destiny to rule other countries were indoctrinated to mold a subservient, obedient worker, supportive of Imperial Japan’s military expansion. What cannot be underestimated from this period is the lasting effect the militaristic government exerted on the national psyche of a generation. One can trace the formation of the image of the diligent, hard-working Japanese to this period.

Japan inc.

Following defeat in World War II, the national collective endeavour, not unlike other war-ravaged countries, was focused on rebuilding the physical and healing the mental scars of war. Gradually, as economic reconstruction progressed and infrastructure slowly rebuilt, the country developed an export-based economy to compensate for a lack of natural resources. In developed countries, once rebuilding of the physical infrastructure had been completed, attempts to heal some of the hardships experienced embraced a shift towards the benefits of leisure and recreation among the population. Working hours gradually reduced and the benefits of economic growth allowed for the enjoyment of foreign travel and the ability to pursue individual pastimes. Conversely, with national survival no longer relevant, this shift has failed to occur and Japan has continued in a dogmatic pursuit of economic security, all too conscious that natural and geographic factors do not allow it to take economic survival for granted. It appears the Japanese have accepted that in order to stay economically competitive continued collective effort is required, and relaxation of this would result in inevitable decline in standards and status, which for all their hard work they are not prepared to surrender. Employment data reveals this has resulted in a workforce “whose need to work has become so excessive that it may constitute a danger to their health, personal happiness and social functioning:” the definition of a workaholic. The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) annual World Labour Reports have addressed the problem of workaholism and acknowledged Japanese work longer hours than most other industrial nations. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) labour surveys also reflect this trend, further reinforcing the image of Japan as one of the world’s longest working nations. Officially (see Table 1 below), Koreans are recognised as the most overworked workforce, with current figures showing an average of 2,200 annual working hours, down from 2,600 hours, but still 10 weeks (400 hours) more than the Japanese (1,800 hours), 15 weeks more than the British, and 20 weeks more than the Dutch.

Figure 1. Total of annual hours worked (OECD, 2011)

Burrows, Figure 1

Working hours in 1990 and 2011, OECD countries

Many attribute Japan’s reduction in working hours (1990: 2,250; 2011: 1,800) to government efforts at encouraging employers to allow workers to take more holidays (e.g. the introduction of the five-day working week in 1989) as previously less than 30% took two-day weekends and even fewer longer vacations (Japan Labour Bulletin, 1995). However, official statistics invite skepticism due to the vested interest of the government in achieving success for its policy of promoting the image of a less work-oriented society. Concluding from the data a significant change or leisure renaissance in Japan is premature as it certainty fails to include the service-overtime many company employees are expected to undertake, and reflects only the ‘standard’ paid overtime officially recorded.1 Service-overtime (85% of companies adopt it; Daily Yomiuri, 2011) essentially amounts to a ritual of dedication and subservience to one’s employer, and reveals the reason for the excessive hours are not purely work-related, but incorporative of a socio-cultural element which equates the time spent at one's desk, regardless of productivity, as a symbolic statement of one’s loyalty to the organisation. Under the Japanese employment system permanent employees of large companies and government departments are rewarded for their commitment with lifetime employment, and organisations’ attempts to maximise participation creates a community of workers working together in an environment in which overtime becomes a duty towards fellow workers. New recruits are expected to commit themselves to the company which in turn promises protection until retirement, this represents the main reason for the demonstration of their company spirit, even if it contributes little to overall productivity. Additionally, the premise an employee’s presence equals productivity is contradicted by OECD statistics which highlights higher labour productivity in other OECD countries (66% that of U.S. productivity and 20th among 34 major OECD countries: OECD, 2010). An acceptance of employer demands has been reinforced by institutional decisions, including a 1991 Supreme Court ruling (Tanaka v Hitachi, 1967) that employees are obliged to work overtime, even against their will, if the request from the employer is “reasonable” (author’s emphasis). The plaintiff was dismissed for refusing a request to complete a task which would have required working overtime, despite Article 322 of the Labour Standards Law stipulating the maximum working day at eight hours. The Supreme Court’s ruling was based on a separate provision of the Law (Article 363) which provides that the employer could extend working hours beyond the maximum prescribed by Article 32 under “certain conditions” (author’s emphasis).4

Adding to the impression of a workaholic nation was the introduction of a new word in 1982 which encompasses all that is wrong with a culture of slavish compliance: karoushi. Coined by Uehata (1990) it describes those who have literally worked themselves to death from heart failure or cerebral haemorrhage. Medical parlance defines it as:

…a condition in which psychologically unsound work processes are allowed to continue in a way that disrupts the worker's normal life rhythms, leading to a buildup of fatigue in the body and accompanied by a worsening of preexistent high blood pressure and a hardening of the arteries, finally resulting in a fatal breakdown (Uehata, 1990).

Accurate statistics do not exist but most karoushi victims are believed to have worked more than 3,000 hours a year, approximately twice the annual working hours of people in France and Germany. Despite acceptance of the problems of work-related illnesses the Japanese government does not officially recognise its existence nor keep statistics. Corporate Japan is equally reluctant to acknowledge its legitimacy out of fear of the inevitable litigation. In the post-bubble year the Economic Planning Agency decided to address karoushi in a report titled Overwork and Health Hazards (1994). It urged employees to adopt ‘healthy values’ and to change their thinking from ‘loyalty to the company’ to “sincerity towards the job.” However, what Seward and Van Zandt (1987) describe as an ‘expression of loyalty to one's master, one's company, one's country’ is unlikely to change with platitudes to lead a healthier lifestyle. As Snir (1990) correctly points out, the cultural context of this phenomenon, in addition to the personal characteristics valued by Japanese, need to be adequately addressed before any significant progress can be achieved.

Daily life

Throughout Japanese society philosophical and religious beliefs relating to goal-setting are instilled at a young age, and help reinforce the image of a people disengaged from activities most Westerners would consider essential for a balanced lifestyle. School children are encouraged to engage in activities (both social and study-orientated) utilising time children in other countries would spend playing after school. From childhood many children’s lives revolve around institutions: club activity, school cleaning, cram school, leading to a full-time schedule from a young age. It is in fact a rare sight (recognised by the Japanese government) to see children playing outside in the hours after school. More common are intensive club/sports practice sessions whose length and frequency often exceed the optimum duration for physical exercise. Nothing could be less beneficial for young, underdeveloped bodies than extended practice negating benefits the teacher assumes is being achieved. Adopting training/practice sessions in which students practiced intensively for a more limited period would be perceived as lack of dedication, and illustrates that occupying children’s time and setting goals is an integral element of daily existence.

These examples help to build the stereotype of the Japanese as a people whose obsession with occupying their time results in a fully occupied lifestyle. A culture in which not utilising what precious spare time exists is frowned upon, resulting in a stressed, overworked, work-centered society. Official statistics add weight to this perception, for example OECD’s Society at a Glance offers an overview of social trends and policy developments in the 18 OECD countries, and reveals Japanese people sleep nearly an hour less every night than the French who sleep on average the longest (see Graph 1.)

Figure 2. Sleep time among the OECD countries (2009)

Burrows, Figure 2

Average sleeping time


This paper has attempted to highlight historical comparisons with today’s work ethic in Japan to address whether, as with many things Japanese, the stereotype is a distortion of reality. It reveals a culture where, not unlike other modern developed countries, people undoubtedly lead full lives, but where the perception of trying and displaying one’s best incorporates a pseudo-ceremonial aspect of display over substance. This is most evident in the workplace, with unquestioning acquiescence to a culture of corporate performing and ritualistic display of worker dedication and commitment. This contrasts with most Western workers for whom the external necessities which affect the scope of time invested in work are limited to extrinsic job rewards (i.e. payment), on the contrary for the Japanese organisational norms (e.g. social influence; work demands) dictate conditions.

The question remains partly unanswered as to why such a predominance continues in modern Japan, especially as the Japanese themselves recognise the problem and acknowledge the consequences which must be endured as a result. Whether this aspect of Japanese culture will survive future generations remains unclear, but from personal observation it appears among the younger generation a more reluctant attitude of acquiescing to the demands of work is coalescing. Although there are few clear indicators to highlight this impression, there exists a more noticeable opposition to work-centred lifestyle, almost certainly as awareness of other countries’ work habits and customs has become known. The awareness is changing people’s attitude as demands for longer holidays and more time for recreation for themselves start to become voiced more strongly. One recent development which could be indicative is the increasing number of young people who choose not to enter the workforce immediately after graduating high school. Having grown up in an affluent society could a new breed of Japanese, envious of their Western counterparts, and the changing work habits evidence that priorities are changing? If this trend continues, today’s young people will grow increasingly resistant to surrendering their personal ambitions and private lives to work, and search for employment which matches these desires. This will inevitably lead to compromise between what younger generations are prepared to sacrifice and companies who will have to alter long held traditions.


Government of Japan. (1985) Workforce attitude survey. 「産業労働における勤勉性に関する研究」Tokyo: National Institute for Research Advancement.

———(1994). Overwork and health hazards – Analysis and recommendations from the viewpoint of working people).「働きすぎと健康障害―勤労者の立場からみた分析と提言」Institute of Economics, Economic Planning Agency. Tokyo: Japanese Government (vol. 133).

———(1995) Japan Labour Bulletin. (vol. 34, No. 1). Tokyo: Japanese Government.

———(2005) Study of Desirable Personnel Management Policies. Tokyo: Management and Coordination Agency Survey.

———(1985). Historical Transitions in Living Standards 「生活水準の歴史的推移」Tokyo: Japanese Government.

International Labour Organization. (2007) World Labour Report.

Kato, K. (1995). Workaholism: It’s not in the blood. Retrieved September 15th, 2013, from http://members.jcom.home.ne.jp/katori/WORKAHOLISM.html.

National Institute for Research Advancement「総合研究開発機構」 (1985) 産業労働における勤勉性に関する研究.

Ogura, K. (2011, February 6) Overtime work in Japan. The Daily Yomiuri Newspaper.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2009). Society at a glance 2009. OECD Social Indicators. Paris: OECD.

———(2010). Society at a glance 2010. OECD Social Indicators. Paris: OECD.

———(2011). Society at a glance 2011. OECD Social Indicators. Paris: OECD.

Scherzer, Karl von. (1888). Moritz Wagner: Ein Deutsches Forscherleben. Montana: Kessinger Publishing.

Seward, J., and Van Zandt, H. (1987) Japan: The Hungry Guest. Tokyo: Yohan Publications.

Snir, R. (1990) Workaholism: description, definition, measurement, and validation. (unpublished PhD dissertation) The Technion. Haifa: Israel Institute of Technology.

Tanaka v. Hitachi Seisakusho, Supreme Court, 594 Roudou Hanrei 7 (1991, November 28).

Uehata, T. (1990) Karoushi: When the Corporate Warrior Dies. The lifestyle of Japanese Workers. Tokyo: Mado-sha.


[1] The Management and Coordination Agency’s survey (2005) of workers found the real number of working hours a year totals 350 more than the Ministry of Labour statistics.

[2] Article 32: An employer shall not have a worker work more than 40 hours per week, excluding rest periods.

[3] Article 36: the employer may, in accordance with the provisions of such agreement (i.e. labour union), and regardless of the provisions of Articles 32…with respect to working hours and the provisions of the preceding Article with respect to rest days, extend the working hours or have workers work on rest days.

[4] A survey by My News Japan (2011) found more than 60% of Japan’s 225 most popular companies compel employees to work over 80 hours overtime per month.

[5] In excess of 80 hours overtime a month is considered by the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry as potentially damaging to one’s health.

About the Author

Chris Burrows is a Special Instructor of Language at Kwansei Gakuin University. He has been teaching at tertiary education in Japan for more than ten years. He has an MA in TESOL and is currently conducting Ph.D. research into communication strategy use and its influence on speaking proficiency. When he is not devising ways to make students engage in English during class he continues the struggle of mastering the Japanese written form. His major field of research is communication strategies and their influence on communicative proficiency. The research aims to equip Japanese EFL learners with the linguistic and problem-solving skills to overcome linguistic barriers. Symbolising attempts to incorporate a competence into the interlanguage, they allow the interlocutor to transcend communication barriers, and represent a subset of language-use strategies which deal with language production problems.

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