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All work and no play makes Taro a dull boy

(first posted 11 June 06)

The Japanese have long had a stereotypical reputation for being unusually hard-working. Why then has the Japanese economy been wallowing stagnant since 1990?

In the economic crash following the notorious ‘bubble years’ of rampant speculation, banks and companies that had assets in land or shares lost their money overnight. With the banks burdened with bad debts, they wouldn’t lend any more, so business expansion simply stopped. Unemployment rose, and consumers stopped spending. It all ground to a halt.

The fact that things now have to change can not be denied – a recession that’s lasted a decade and a half is all the evidence you need. But reform is slow, and as Mr Koizumi is currently finding, there is considerable resistance from those who are the most comfortable, and the need for change is perfectly easy to ignore for those who are quite happy to let things plod on just as they are.

And yet in this context there are still millions of people working so many hours that they have no leisure time at all. There is a word karoshi – which means death from overwork, applied to workers who simply drop dead with exhaustion after sacrificing family, leisure, food and sleep. Similarly, there is also karojisatsu – meaning suicide with all the same implications.

So with all these hours being put in, why isn’t business booming? Western analysts say that it’s because though the Japanese may work hard, they don’t for the most part work smart.

A report this week from the Nihon University School of Medicine suggested simple exhaustion is costing the Japanese economy $30 billion a year. And this brings up the question of “hard work” and “productivity”. They fact that they are obviously not the same thing is seldom brought up. Achieving the same in a shorter time, and increasing your leisure hours is anathema to Japanese businesses, meaning that millions of workers end up devoting all their time to the company.

This subjugation of self is drummed into kids from a very early age. It has been said that Japanese universities are the opposite of British universities. While in Britain, getting into a university isn’t too demanding but you have to work really hard when you’re there, in Japan you have to work like crazy to get into one, but not a huge amount is demanded of you once you’re in. Therefore businesses still recruit on the basis of what university you went to rather than what you achieved there. Because of the way the education system is organised, you only get into the top universities if you go to the top high schools. Which means you have to go to the top elementaries. And there are entrance exams for all of these. There is pressure, then, on the kids all the way down to kindergarten level if they want to be the salarymen of the next generation.

And that “if” is a big one, and growing every day. There is a swelling group within the younger generations being referred to as “Freeters”, meaning teenagers, 20-somethings and early 30-somethings who have overwhelmingly rejected the Road to Salaryman-dom, and instead live with their parents and live off them (hence the term ‘parasite singles’) and perhaps a part-time, low-salary, low-skill job. Some estimates claim there will be up to 10 million freeters in Japan within the next decade. What implications this will have in the future is a source of concern to many. (But this may also mean that businesses will have to review their recruitment procedures.)

The pressure being put on some kids by their parents can be seen in the streams of schoolkids on bicycles returning home at ten and eleven at night after hours of extra after-school classes, at the infamous juku – cram schools, where students get extra training in exam technique. And taking extra lessons often means lots of lessons – the BBC ran another excellent article this week, which tells a sad tale of the enormous pressures put on a child by his mother. There is a double sadness in the story, in that the mother complains about her boy being busy and under pressure as if the fault for this lay with a third party. The other sadness is that, like a growing number of children in Japan, the boy is left with no time just to be a kid.

One Comment leave one →
  1. remora permalink
    October 23, 2008 1:04 am

    “The pressure put on some kids by their parents can be..”

    (oh yeah)…tell me about it.

    *It ain’t pretty*


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