The ILC community has ramped up its preparations ahead of the ILC pre-lab to be instated in 2022, and we’re moving closer and closer to the project becoming a reality. Maybe some of our readers are starting to imagine a future life in Japan? While it will be a global research facility, it will be located in Japan, and it’s only natural that many of our readers will start to wonder what it will be like to work in Japan… Especially since we’ve all heard the stereotype that the Japanese people work some long hours*.

Working in Japan

Japan has long been known as a workaholic society, with inflexible working hours and dangerous levels of overtime. There are unspoken rules to never take more time off than absolutely necessary and to never leave before the boss. Even after work, there’s a pressure to socialize with coworkers at local drinking establishments, leaving little free time or work-life balance. This style of work is really only tenable for people with spouses at home running the house, leaving everyone else behind.

The cultural norm is to work, work, and work some more – and yet, Japan has one of the worst productivity rates in the OECD. People die from the stress. It’s hard for working parents (especially women) to remain in the workforce. Young people are not interested in spending every waking moment at work. Clearly, something needs to change.

A buzzword in Japan in the last few years has been “hatarakikata kaikaku” or, working-style reform. The national government is keen to get more women in the workforce and to reduce the deadly levels of overtime. The whole point is to not just reduce hours, but to provide a number of different ways and styles to work, allowing for everyone to choose what’s right for them.  Japan has two major challenges: a decreasing working population that can work (thanks to low birthrates and the greying of society) as well as the diversification of worker’s needs. In order to tackle that, they need to invest and innovate to improve productivity, expand employment opportunities, and create a working environment that can make full use of people’s desires and skills. By realizing a society that responds to the needs and circumstances of every laborer, and allowing them to choose from a variety of working styles, they hope to create a positive cycle of growth and diversification.

The government is currently enacting a number of different programs to solve the situation, ranging from putting limits on how much overtime can be done in a certain amount of time, to encouraging flex time and teleworking. The most difficult thing might be changing the culture of work in Japan itself, as so many rules are left unsaid. There’s the culture of “gaman” – of enduring discomfort with a smile. There’s the unspoken pressure to not be a burden on others and to help others who need it. In the West, it might be more common for bosses to leave the details to their underlings to figure out, whereas in Japan, rather than numeric performance metrics, there tends to be an emphasis on hours in the seat and frequent communication with bosses (often called “hou-ren-sou” which is an acronym for “report/communicate/consult.”) Changing these expectations will require a cultural reset of sorts, and may take some time.

Working in Iwate

The Iwate Prefectural government has tried to lead by example – they’ve implemented remote access of our systems so people can work from home, and have encouraged bosses to create an environment where people can go home on time. Executive directors encourage workers to plan vacation days in advance and to take longer breaks at one time. There’s also the “Kaeru no Hi” day, which is a convoluted pun that basically means “Today I’m going home on time.” In the future there are more IT-related strategies planned; such as remote desktop access and AI-based solutions for residents to interface with.

The prefecture is also encouraging companies in Iwate to reform their working styles and hours. There’s an Iwate Working Style Reform Promotion Support Center, a support desk, and consultants available for Iwate’s SMEs to talk to about changing up their work environments. There’s even an award for companies excelling in work environment reform

Working as a civil servant in Japan

From a personal standpoint, I’ve been working in Japan for over ten years at this point, and as a civil servant with the Iwate government for about 4 years now. My current post has me doing a job that’s no different from my Japanese coworkers. So I’d like to give a more anecdotal look at what it’s like to work in Japan like a Japanese person and what I’ve learned so far from it.

In fact, the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is:

Don’t work overtime!

Just joking. I almost always have things to do that keep me past quitting time, but even then I’m usually one of the first to leave my office. But this is the kind of job where there will always be more to do, and I learned that it’s important to strike my own balance between work and play.

In my first year in my new division, I tried to do as much overtime as I could, to prove to my coworkers that I could do the same job as they could (and also because there was so much I didn’t know how to do so it took me forever to get things done). But I still couldn’t imagine staying until the wee hours of the night. During my first review with my boss, I told him that my hard limit was 8pm at night, and that I would certainly go home after that unless absolutely necessary for a deadline or something.

“Striking a balance between work and life! That’s great!”

So anyway, after my first few months of doing a bunch of overtime, I predictably started to feel a bit blue. Luckily we entered a lull period at work, and I got better at various things so I naturally needed less overtime to get things done. But even in the future, I think it will be difficult for me to do that kind of overtime again.

Nobody has seemed to have a problem with that. I get work done by the deadline, and I think I luckily just have less on my plate than other people do. I also find myself working faster and more efficiently when I have sufficient rest and free time, so really, working chronic overtime would just make my productivity suffer.

I do feel a sense of guilt when I go home while everyone else is still working. I get the sense that there’s definitely more for me to be doing, that I’m not proactive enough, that I’m lazy, that I don’t contribute to the workplace as a whole… But it’s not as if anyone has ever said that to me. It’s just ingrained in me from years of working in this environment. For right now, I get everything that MUST be done done, and everything else progressing in a timely manner. We’ll see how far that gets me!

I’m only talking about working in a civil servant environment, and private businesses and academic are a whole different beast so I can’t speak to that. But I have noticed the push to reduce overtime in the past few years, as well as an increase in flextime and remote working (especially since COVID-19 appeared). In a lot of ways, Japanese culture seems to be ready to make the shift to a more balanced working style. Perhaps having the ILC in Iwate will bring us into more contact with different working styles, and accelerate new change.