Living in Japan has taught me many things. The most difficult lesson I am having at the moment is understanding how Japanese people can work six to seven days a week for weeks on end, and know the exact number of holidays they’ve taken year to date at any day of the year. I have two acquaintances here with whom I have discussed this point. Both were quite enlightening.
One man works for an interior renovation company as a project manager. He can easily work for three weeks without a day off, and they are mostly ten hour days. I still do not understand how this is possible. When, for example, does a person on this schedule do their laundry? This is in a country where letting your laundry pile up for more than two days is considered bad hygiene, and dryers are luxury items. When we met I learned that he loves surfing and used to live near the beach before moving for his job. His dream is to become employed by a boutique sports wear shop on the shore where he can surf every morning for an hour or two before work. To me, this sounds like a small dream, but to him it is immeasurable personal freedom.
Since we met he told me he has started to rethink his life and his priorities. He wants this job, but he does not know how to acquire it. Japanese are not particularly good at controlling their own destinies. Generally, they are a very passive people. Recently he lamented to me that he would like to quit his current job, but there are no other available options to go to. I said to him, “why don’t you just take a few ‘sick’ days without quitting?” I figured if he gets caught, he wanted to quit anyway and maybe he’ll get some unemployment or something. I feel like this was a very American suggestion. “Ah! What an idea? I never thought of that,” he says to me. “You really gave me a new perspective!”
The second man works for a local branch of a large sports equipment company (what can I say? I like sports). He is an hourly employee, which is considered “part time” in Japan. The shop closes at seven in the evening and one night I received a message from him “Done for the day!” It was 10:30 pm. He gets one day off per week and on that day he works part time as a mechanic. I said he works too much. He said I work too little. I told him the French consider a 35-hour work week to be excessive. He said Japan is not a country where you can live working less. At this last point, my mind started spinning.
As an economist I am keenly aware of the role of boundaries in our lives. Sometimes the boundary is money, as in we have to meet our budget or else we can’t pay off our mortgage. Sometimes the boundary is very personal and very rigid, like our innate attention span. Sometimes the boundary is imposed upon us by organizations that seem more mechanical than human, like the boundary between on-the-clock and off-the-clock. Boundaries can be comforting, such as when we set a boundary for how much risk we are willing to tolerate in our lives, and then stay safely inside it. But they can also be suffocating, such as when the boss thinks that an acceptable boundary between work and personal life is having access to your social media profile, e-mail and cell phone number, but promising not to misuse them. Boundaries can also control our ability to make good decisions by changing the context of the choices that we make. Japan, I argue, has a problem with boundaries.
As a member of the modern world with access to the internet, you have undoubtedly been told that the wealth available to the average citizen of the United States is greater than that of King Louis XIV, or some other similar claim of modern affluence. Undoubtedly you were told this by some charitable organization hoping for just two dollars a month to save some children from starving, or else you were told by some authority figure who wanted to impress upon you the need to work more and play less. Perhaps when you heard this claim, you thought to yourself, “if I am so rich, then why is my life so difficult?” Indeed, this is a difficult question to answer unless you are accustomed to thinking about how boundaries influence our welfare.
Let us take a moment to think back. Decades, indeed centuries ago, when the sun went down the world went to sleep. Even the lowliest peasant on a Midieval fief was sent home at the end of the day because the fuel to light the fields was simply not worth the expense. Come industrialization, not only did we have the ability to work long, grueling hours, but we also had the technology to make it profitable. From industrialization we moved to telecommunications. Now, even when the work day ended, our bosses could still find us in our homes and return us to work. From telecommunications we went to the current situation of live feeds and mobile computers so light and small that they fit in our pocket, and which are more powerful than the clunky desktop pieces we shared among an entire family barely twenty years ago. From the perspective of the economy, this is a massive increase in productive capacity and it is part of the reason why we are so affluent today. However, all this technology has created a difficult situation for employer and employee relationships.
Years ago, in fact only one generation ago, when you left the job, you stayed off duty until your shift started the next day. It was simply too difficult or else too cost ineffective for your boss to expect you to be productive in any capacity when you were not physically on site. Even jobs that relied on computers (or typewriters, as it were) stayed in the office since many people did not own the necessary equipment to take their work home with them. This placed a boundary on the daily productive capacity of each employee, which in turn restricted overall profits as well as individual wages. Today, however, the ability to take work home with us has reached through to almost every kind of job. Today, if we want to stop working, we have to provide a reason to stop where before the reason was clear: that it’s simply impossible to work more.
The technology that has allowed us to choose when and where we work has essentially created a conflict between employer and employee that clearly favors the employer. Now every employee must appeal for the privilege to stop working. If it is possible to work, why wouldn’t you? seems to be the logic that every company employs. Unfortunately because the power is never balanced between boss and worker, the worker loses ground. It is impossible to say to one’s boss “I simply don’t want to work this much,” without risking one’s job. The truth is that over time, technology has eroded the natural boundary between work and personal life and the individual is simply not equipped socially to reinstate it.
My friends do not work six to eight days a week because Japan is a country where it is impossible to live working less than six days a week. In fact Japan is a country where it is possible to live working every waking hour, and even some sleeping hours. That’s why my friend’s lives are so difficult. In Japan it is even more difficult to assert yourself to your superiors than it is in the western world. This is because Japan has a very well established social hierarchy and sense of obligation. The employer should take care of his employees’ every physical needs right up to subsidizing their rent and work meals, and in return the employees must dedicate their lives to their employers. It is almost as if the Samurai live on with karoshi (literally “death by over work”) replacing seppuku as the means of preserving honor.
Japan is not the only country that is slowly destroying its people through over work. Americans are well on their way there, too. To see this we need only look at the billions of dollars wasted on medicating chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and depression. Unfortunately this outcome is inevitable. The powerful will always take advantage of the weak, and there is an inherent power imbalance in our market system. All hope is not lost, however. We may not be able to control the infrastructure of our society, or be able to tell our bosses that they are crossing the line, but we can appreciate each other on a personal level. We can love our friends and celebrate their lives — lives lived fully, and completely, with work and with play and with love and with responsibility. In doing so we will lessen the moral burden of leaving an organization that abuses us. If we know we have the support of our friends in making decisions that improve our lives holistically, then even if it means risking our jobs, we can turn around and assert our own personal boundaries on the people who seek to use us up for their profits.
It may never happen that, as a society, our right to happiness and leisure is officially recognized. Even if we do everything in our power to protect our happiness and the happiness of those we love, it may always be true that the weaker in spirit will not be protected and will further contribute to a system that consumes where it should be providing. However, even if our numbers are too small to “make a difference,” there is still enough affluence in our society that even if we were to live perpetually at the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, we would still have enough to live and live happily if only we could remember to keep that happiness precious.
In the end, I suppose it is all about perspective. We have a choice between selling our souls for affluence, or building affluence out of pure spirit. It can be done. It’s scary, though. We are not taught to be alive or to be happy and many of us simply assume that if we just do the “right” things happiness will fall on us. But, no. You have to make your happy. If you take the perspective that the world exists as resources to build happiness, as compared to the perspective of you exist to “succeed” and are only entitled to whatever happiness you can fit into the margins of that success, then you will find that happiness. As an economist I am meant to study the world as it operates in the presence of scarcity, but I don’t think we live with scarcity. I think we live with abundance, if only we were brave enough to reach out and take it.