In Japan, Work is the Only Thing Worth Doing

In Japan, Work is the Only Thing Worth Doing

The greatest and most unquestionable virtue


Illustration by Richard Koyama-Daniels

“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.”

In his 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” British philosopher Bertrand Russell argues that with the advancement of technology, time spent working could be cut down dramatically to four hours a day, resulting in reduced unemployment, increased happiness and greater opportunities for serious leisure. 85 years after his essay, Russell would no doubt be disappointed to find that work is as virtuous as ever.

Perhaps nowhere does this belief cause as much harm as in Japan, where the problem of karoshi (death by overwork) is only gradually being recognized by limp workstyle reforms, and where suicide-caused train delays by stressed-out workers are but a mundane fact-of-life annoyance to those bleary-eyed commuters who still have stamina left for their employers to feed on.

Now I’m rarely surprised by the acquiescence of many Japanese to the unquestioned virtue of work, but I recall being particularly shocked by the details of a 23-year-old Olympic stadium construction worker’s suicide. The worker took his life after working over 200 hours of overtime a month. Buzzfeed Japan reported on the comments made by his parents to the press:

“He would wake up at 4:30 and leave for work at around 5:00. He would get home in the middle of the night. Waking up in the mornings seemed very difficult … We were worried by his short sleeping hours. When it got to mid-February, he would fall asleep in his work clothes, and even if woken up would immediately fall asleep again.”

Why did the worker commit suicide, despite the fact that the people who surely cared for him most appear to have been fully aware of and concerned by his situation? Why, at any point in the deterioration of his mental and physical health, wasn’t there an intervention or a suggestion that there may be other options than to keep working and die trying? 

Not knowing more about the incident than what was reported, I can only speculate that both the worker and his parents saw struggling through the punishing circumstances as the most — or perhaps the only — respectable path to take, a baptism of fire from which he would emerge a hardened professional. His final message suggests that he inhabited a world in which there was indeed no other option.

“Family, friends, colleagues – I am truly sorry. Please forgive me, as I could not think of any other outcome than this. I am sorry.”

Work in Japan is the greatest, most legitimate and most unquestionable virtue. Furthermore, its most virtuous and meaningful form comes not through any great purpose, but when the work itself is accomplished through struggle, survival and sacrifice. The struggle of work becomes an end in itself, the only truly reliable method to assert your position in society as an upstanding citizen. And as with many other forms of pointless suffering, it is glorified as building character and is used to assert a moral high ground from which to bludgeon those who do not submit themselves to the same absurd self-destruction.

Indeed, it is a cruel quirk that in supposedly group-oriented Japan, there can be little sympathy for struggling individuals and a reluctance to lend them a hand. Germany-based Japanese writer Amemiya Shion wrote (in Huffington Post Japan) of how Japanese are grinding themselves down in what she describes as a “war of attrition” where an individual’s efforts are not recognized until they work themselves to ragged exhaustion, until which point any request for assistance is only weak dependence on another’s benevolence.

But why the struggle? Japan is still the world’s third largest economy — there is no lack of wealth, no need to struggle for daily sustenance, no war effort to warrant such desperate exertions; only unparalleled economic prosperity, wealth in arts and culture and endless opportunity for education and entertainment — all the resources needed for a civilized, stimulating and happy life.

Give your average Japanese workaholic some unexpected free time and you will likely hear complaints about not knowing what to do with the sudden windfall. More than anything else, it is the lack of imagination that such complaints stand for which strikes me as most tragic. It is extraordinary that in a time and place of such unparalleled stability, wealth and opportunity, only in work do people feel comfortable that their time, or that of others, is valuably spent.

It is unlikely that any developed nation will soon put Russell’s vision of a society moderate in work and rich in civilised leisure into practice — least of all Japan. One can hope, though, that coming generations of more laid-back Japanese might show that an alternative to the struggle of work need not be indolence, but a freer, more civilized and fulfilling exploration of our potential as individuals and as a society. Hopefully yutori sedai (relaxed generation) will live up to its name.