My Response to Unpaid Overtime in Japan

September 25, 2017

I promised myself I wouldn’t act like the stereotypical foreign worker and complain whenever the company needed me to work late or do things outside of my job description. My job has so much downtime during the day I’m usually able to work on my own projects, so when they asked me to stay until 7:00 for a meeting, I didn’t balk; it seemed very fair in my opinion.

Unfortunately, I can’t control my stomach in these matters. The second time I was asked to work overtime, I was expecting us to finish around the same time. After that had come and gone with no ending in sight, my blood sugar was low and I let my frustration seep into my behavior: sighing, squeezing my pen so tight the white on my knuckles showed, shifting in my seat because my legs also didn’t appreciate the extended confinement.

By the end, my supervisor had picked up on the fact I was annoyed, angry, or just thoroughly miserable, and let me leave a few minutes before everyone else. We were still the last ones out of the building, with the cleaning crews having already begun their work.

I have nothing to complain about when it comes to being stressed out at work. Unlike my supervisor, who tends to arrive around 7:00 AM and stay until 7:00 PM, I’m in at 8:15 and wrap things up around 4:30. The issue I have isn’t so much the fact I’ve had to stay late a few times, but that everyone else in Japan just takes it for granted that they must do so every day.

I haven’t had to justify my anger at this Japanese practice, but if I were directly asked by a supervisor or coworker, I now know how I would respond:

What are two of the biggest problems facing Japan today?

Ignoring the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation from North Korea, the answer is clear: an aging workforce and a low birthrate. Both problems go hand in hand, and the source is the same: work culture in Japan. Overtime, particularly unpaid overtime, and mandatory company outings, are literally killing this country.

The suicide rate may be exceptionally high in Japan, as is the practice of employees working themselves to death, but this effect of overtime isn’t the main source of problems in Japan. Rather, instilling the idea from birth that there is no work-life balance – only work – has resulted in a lack of time for dating, developing interests, socializing, and having babies. The fact Japan has an immense number of people in the workforce about to turn 60 (the former mandatory retirement age) isn’t an issue, but the fact that there are no younger workers to replace them is.

This is what I would offer in retort to any Japanese supervisor who asks why I have a problem staying late. Though he or she may have managed to have a family with their ridiculous work schedule, many Japanese haven’t. Worse than that: they haven’t felt the desire to even try.

There are many misleading reports floating around regarding the rise in popularity of love dolls in Japan and a decrease in a lack of interest in sex among Japanese men. Stories like these subtly suggest such factors have contributed to the situation the country is in now, facing an unparalleled workforce shortage in the next few decades.

However, stories like these are merely fodder for the real problem causing a low birthrate, a decrease in dating and marriage, and an aging population: workplace culture. Companies can institute practices like Super Cool Biz to make workers more comfortable in the summer, but until they actively encourage men and women in Japan to use their vacation days, and stop implying they need to stay late to be considered good workers, this problem will just get worse.

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