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Japanese people explained! [Chapter 4] Work ethics

I was born in Japan, with an Egyptian mother and a Japanese father. I grow up my whole life in Japan, went to a local school, local high school and finished University in Japan, then started working in Tokyo.

I thought I will try to explain today about the work ethics in Japan. We know the Japanese are hard-working, but I want to demonstrate to you, how far they will go.

First, I want to explain some vocabulary representing the hard-working Japanese culture.

Salaryman and Sha-chiku

Picture from wikipedia

A salaryman (サラリーマン, sararīman) is a salaried worker and, more specifically, a Japanese white-collar worker who shows overriding loyalty and commitment to the corporation where he works. Salarymen are expected to work long hours,additional overtime, to participate in after-work leisure activities such as drinking, singing karaoke and visiting hostess bars with colleagues, and to value work over all else. The salaryman typically enters a company after graduating from college and stays with that corporation for the duration of his career. according to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This definition changed in the last 10 years. A Salaryman can be anyone who is on a salary, they don’t have to be necessary “showing overriding loyalty and commitment”, and also it is nowadays rare to “stay with that corporation for the duration of his career”. There are lazy salarymen or salarymen who don’t care too much about their work.

There is another word that was created with the intention to narrow down the salarymen with the above description, and they are called “Sha-chiku”

Sha-chiku (社畜)

Sha-chiku a word to describe a person who became a domesticated humans raised in an corporate setting to produce labor: Sha-chiku (社畜). It is a play on word with livestock animals, Ka-chiku.

会社 (kaisha, “company”) + 家畜 (kachiku, “livestock”), or (sha, “company”) + (chiku, “livestock”). source: Wicktionary

There are many Sha-chiku’s in Japan. A Salaryman is just any employee of a company and Sha-chiku is someone who devoted their life to the company they work for. (in wikipedia, salaryman used to be used as a meaning of Sha-chiku, but in Japanese there are 2 different words. We use Sha-chiku, for a salaryman in an English meaning )

The “Sha-chiku works from sun rise to the last train. Will head out to drinks to listen to their boss morn his life, will be willing to go on business trips, or relocation that will be announced at very short notices, and (happy to) stay at the office until his/her boss leaves, even if this means scrolling meaningless Facebook post for 3 hours.

I do have many friends of mine that are salaryman (or salarywoman) and at the borderline Sha-chiku. Some crazy stories about work culture I heard of the followings:

  1. The husband works for an automotive industry, he will be at work every day close to midnight, also works often on Saturdays. The wife also works but at the reception so her work will finish early. She can take care of their two children, however a full-time job with 2 small children sounds like a nightmare, without any or limited help from her husband. I don’t understand why he continues working like this, because when you look at the hourly rate, he will be better off working at a restaurant, or convenient store.

  2. This friend works almost every day till the last train. She rarely finishes before 10pm. She will stamp her time card out at a reasonable hour, around 6 or 7 pm, so her boss won’t find out that she is working late, but will continue on working till late to finish her project. She was told to cut overtime, because the company wasn’t compliant with the government regulations, which led to her solution to stamp her time card earlier, and continue to work overtime (This is called “Service zangyou- a free overtime given by the employee, and it is a true problem in Japan)

  3. My manager used to commute from Chiba, every day for 2 hours each way. He would be in the office around 8 am (meaning he left his house around 6 am.) This is 4 hours a day spent on the train, 20 hours a week.

  4. Many Japanese expats I met outside of Japan, had no say of which position they wanted, or which country they wanted to live in. Often, they are told 1-2 months before their departure, which country or which position they will be assigned to. One family who lived in Belgium, was supposed to go back to Japan after a 3 years contract. 1 month before their departure, the company said to stay for another 2 years. Then after these 2 years, they were told to move to the US.

  5. Many Japanese hesitate to take paid days off. Normally you get 15-20 days’ paid leave but only 50% were used, according to the studies conducted in 2018. Japan ranked the worst country for taking paid holidays (Expedia research)

Why does this happen?

My theory of having so many “Sha-chiku” Salaryman (or women) are how the Japanese company recruits and how they operate. In most of Europe, what you studied is directly connected to your job. In Japan, unless you have a very special position with a specific degree, (Like a doctor, or pharmacist) a general Salaryman can graduate from any department. For example, sports majors are considered “tough and well behaved” so they will be welcomed to a sales team, where their main job is entertainment: aka, late night drinking with customers.

HR (Human Resources) plays a strong role in the company. They have all the power on your rotation, and promotions. HR will decide where you get sent to, to different department or even to another office, within or outside Japan.

I believe, this lack of control toward your carrier creates “Sha-chiku”.

It is bit like obeying to the prison warden. Like the famous Stanford prison experiment, where a group of students flipped a coin to have the role of “prison guard” and “prisoner”. The experiment had to shut down after 6 days, since the guards created their own rules, and made it more and more aggressive.

“You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy … We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.” “C82SAD L07 Social Influence II The BBC Prison Experiment (handout)”.

Because you never know when and where the company will come to you for a sudden change, it gives the company a lot of power, and authority. If you try to fight this, the HR will make sure you will spend the rest of your carrier in misery. So, what can you do? You will have to take it, like a salaryman, and live another day.

Commuting in Tokyo

Have you ever seen a very crowded morning train in Tokyo?

There are special station staff that will push you into the train.

Day time population of Tokyo is 15.92 million people (includes the commuters).

Residence of Tokyo is 13.52 million. (New York, Manhattan area is about 8.3 mil and London is 9 million.)

Many Japanese commute from prefectures outside of Tokyo, mainly from Saitama, Chiba or Kanagawa (93.6% come from these prefecture). A total of 2.9 million people commute to Tokyo. (below is a diagram of where they commute from)

This is about 1/3 of population from Manhattan or London commuting into Tokyo every morning.

(Source :

I worked in Tokyo from 2006 and 2009. I lived 4 stations away from my office, that heads to Shibuya, one of the most crowded stations in Japan.

On my first day of work, I left the house 30mn early, because I didn’t want to be late.

The first train arrives and it’s packed. Like no one can get in it because it is too fully packed. So, I waited for the next train. The next train was as packed as the first train, I see how people are trying to get in, and I decide to wait for the next train.

The 3rd train arrives, and it is the same. As packed as the first 2 trains!

I give up and push myself into the crowded train. The next stop, Shibuya was a 3-minute ride, and then a lot of people got off. I barely made it in time, but I figured out a bus that will take me to Shibuya station instead of taking this train.

I worked for a Danish company, any company that is run by a foreign management is called “Gai-shi Kei” (外資系) Gai means outside and Shi means Capital.

The Gai-shi Kei companies are run – as I said – mostly by foreign management. The Tokyo office was run by a Danish manager so we were allowed to leave at any given time, we didn’t have any sort of rules that we couldn’t leave before our bosses. You will get promoted according to your ability, and, just normal stuff. But it was very different form the Nikkei (日経:Japanese run) companies.

In 2008, the financial crises hit. The company I worked for, fired about 15% of the workforce, and asked employees to volunteer to take unpaid holidays. I was excited and asked my boss if I could take 4 weeks off (And I was scheduled to be on a business trip in Europe for 2 weeks. ) so 6 weeks off in total. He said no. But granted 2 weeks unpaid leave after my 2 weeks business trip. So, I was out of office for 4 weeks.

The following year, I was planning to do it again, maybe 2 weeks on the first half and another 2 weeks later. So, I went to see the HR to ask for the form, and they told me the program was cancelled. I asked them why? I was looking forward to unpaid holidays. The HR manager said “Because you were the only employee who used it.” Ouch.

It wasn’t very popular I guess amongst the Japanese.

As I explained in the previous chapter the education system in Japan, because of the way the Japanese are brought up, it is hard to question authority. The lessons are taught lecture style, and they managed to create many hard-working people. However, it can be suffocating.

Karou-shi, (過労死) is a word that means “Death by overwork.” In 2015, a famous advertising company’s worker died from overwork. She was 24.

The company since then implemented schemes to reduce overtime- which led to workers taking work home, or coming into the office on the weekend to finish their work – without actually getting paid. The management was taken to court again in 2018, with some evidence that one of the departments had 156 hours of overtime per month. (this is after they’ve worked their normal 40 hours a week.) the legal overtime limit is set at 80 hours a month. (this will be if you worked from 9 am to 8:30 pm every day, and take the weekend off)

Is this all that bad?

The quick answer is : Yes, it is. If you show all this data to a European (let’s say to a French person or a German) – They will say, “But why”. Why would Japanese do this to themselves?

I think the baseline, is, they take pride into what they do. A company for a Sha-chiku becomes their own identity.

Some of my best friendships were formed with the office people I worked with in Japan. We would go out drinking, we would stay late for work, (very rarely I went into the office on the weekend but if I did, I had someone there too. ) We used to plan great birthday parties, welcome parties, and leaving parties, people gathered to play music in a band, and we had concerts at Christmas parties. (all paid by the company

It was like a big family, I felt that I belonged somewhere. The social event also happened together at my work place, and it felt like I was a part of a fighter for a greater good, by working hard and devoting myself.

If someone just started their own company, and worked around the clock to make it successful, is it a bad thing? They want to grow their business, and will work till late hours, for something they are passionate about.

I talk to some of my Japanese friends, and I see that. They like what they do, and feel a sense of joy working long hours.

I have another theory why the Japanese can work longer hours. Shops and transportations run till late. In Europe I would have to finish work on time, because shops will close at 6 pm. There is an incentive to finish work on time, so I can run to the local vegetable stand or meat shop to pick up some food.

While in Japan you can find convenience stores with cooked food bento boxes 24/7.

In Japan, you can take vacations very efficiently too. Things are open later, and because of the nature of the island, the mountain and the seaside can be reached within an hour on each direction. I am going to talk about this in detail on the next chapter. [Chapter 5] The vacation and weekends.

If you liked this articles, please check out some others I wrote about Japan!

Japanese people explained! [Chapter 3] Education in Japan

Japanese people explained! [Chapter 2] The Hot Springs and Tattoo

Japanese people explained! [Chapter 1] What is acupuncture?

#salaryman #hardworking #karoushi #japanese #shachiku

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