Lessons From Studying Japanese Workaholism

“If you are losing your leisure, look out!  You may be losing your soul.” -Logan Pearsall Smith

I recently finsished reading a book called A Geography of Time, written by a social psychologist named Robert Levine.  As one can easily discern from the title, the book is about life’s most important non-renewable resource.

It won’t come as a surprise to people who have travelled extensively (or to philosophical types), but how people perceive time heavily influences the creation of culture.  And there are certainly many different ways to perceive time.  As an American I live in a culture that is obsessed with clock time and with Ben Franklin’s assertion that “time is money”.  Some cultures live by event time and the peoples of those cultures rightfully find some aspects of our time culture to be foolish.  I can’t say that I always disagree.


I often lament the fact that I do not live in a country (like France) that has a more a relaxed perception of time and I’m disgusted by the sick sense of pride Americans take in the number of hours they work.  Then again, at least I don’t live in Japan.

The pace of life in Japan is one of the fastest in the world and Levine states that “The magnitude of Japenese dedication to work can be dazzling.”  The Japanese work long hours, avoid vacations, and dread the day they have to retire.  Instead of “Blue Mondays”, the Japanese are more likely to  be afflicted with “Sunday Disease” and “The Holiday Syndrome”.  Pretty twisted, right?

The Japanese, however, also have a term called Karōshi, which means death from overwork.  It turns out that too much of a good thing kills too — the Japanese literally love their work to death.  Despite their ungodly dedication to work, the Japanese are a remarkably healthy people too, at least according to most health statistics.  Surely there are a number of reasons (e.g., diet and activity level) that may help explain why this is so; however, for the purposes of this post I’d like to avoid the quagmire that is epidemiological research — I’m not trying to make any scientific health claims here.  Rather, I’m speculating that speedy cultures aren’t necessarily more unhealthy than slower ones for reasons philosophical.


There was a wonderful film released in 2012 called Jiro Dreams of Sushi and it chronicles the life of one workaholic sushi chef named Jiro.  Jiro’s dedication to his craft is both fascinating and horrifying at the same time.  All those hours of work just to get sushi that tastes a tad bit better, if it even noticeably tastes better at all (Ah, the law of Diminishing Marginal Returns strikes again).  Yet Jiro seemed to be a healthy guy and he has certainly found purpose in his quest to make the world’s best sushi.

One thing that is noticeably different about Japanese culture is that they have a principle called giri, which is in essence an obligation to others.  Japanese workaholism is powered by this concept.  While the official number of hours spent at work is very high in Japan, there seems to be a greater focus on well-being and social cohesiveness.  The Japanese simply aren’t tyrannized by the clock in the same that most Americans seem to be.


Aspects of the Japanese work culture are certainly fascinating and I think there are many societal and personal lessons to be learned from studying it.  It turns out that speed and ambition don’t necessarily kill; however, they can make a bad situation even worse.  There is also somewhat of a contradiction at play here: what’s good for society isn’t necessarily good for the individual and what’s good for the individual isn’t necessarily good for society.

I can’t control what’s good for society, but I can change my relationship with time and work to make my own life better.  I believe that hard work won’t kill you, but hard work without passion and without purpose will, even if it’s just on the inside.  It’s important to remember that when and where we think about work won’t magically start and stop with clock time.  As one of my favorite thinkers Nassim Taleb put it :”Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working; be selective about professions.”

Work is nothing to be afraid of, shitty work is.  Your happiness depends on how you define the word “shitty”, which is going to be different for all of us.


2 Comments on “Lessons From Studying Japanese Workaholism”

  1. David Duffy says:

    You would like Masao Miyamoto’s the Code of the Bureaucrat

  2. Ryan Lim says:

    Learning Japanese may give a different perspective, like I recently went to take classes at “Learn Japanese In Singapore”. Jap culture is interesting indeed..


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