Japanese Lessons: What Japan’s Collective Sleep Deficit Teaches The Rest Of The World


A recent item that caught the eye of our Creative Director & CSO illustrates that while some cultural norms can change in a remarkably short period of time, others are almost impossible to shift. Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has revealed that full-time employees clocked 2,026 hours of work in 2015, just twelve hours fewer that the equivalent total for 1995; this is despite years of government discussions and initiatives designed to wean the East Asian economic giant off its addiction to presenteeism.

Most analyses – particularly Western ones – about Japan’s long-hours culture come across as both patronising and fearful: the overriding sentiment is that those crazy, work-obsessed Japanese need to chill out and Be More Like Us, while there is usually a strong undercurrent of nervousness at the sheer indefatigability of Japan’s labour force.

However – and after some contemplation – we at Mediolana think this school of thought is missing the central point. Putting in plenty of overtime in an office setting is not necessarily a bad thing; however, when it becomes decoupled from results and starts to infringe on areas of life that it has no right to significantly influence, then it is quite justifiable to ask serious questions.

In particular, Japan’s culture of persistent overwork has resulted in the nation running a chronic sleep deficit; this is threatening not just to derail Japan, Inc., but Japan, period:

  1. Macro Decision-Making. Arguably the core catastrophe arising from being a country that is collectively zonked is that Japan’s macro decision-making capabilities have been severely compromised. In particular, the placement of several nuclear power stations on earthquake fault lines passed almost entirely beneath the radar; this tier-one disaster waiting to happen did not generate any significant civil society response or governmental action until after it had actually occurred, with predictably dire consequences.
  2. Declining Intimacy. Another repercussion of the salaryman model is not having the energy – and increasingly, the inclination – for establishing deep emotional bonds with a member of the opposite sex. The corollary of this is a copulation collapse – and a birth rate that presages depopulation on a truly astonishing scale. Addressing this genuinely existential issue is something that the Japanese body politic is evidently too tired for; its reflex response of continued hostility to immigration – even when confronted with certain and acute impoverishment – is that of a comatose entity.
  3. Performance Anxiety. Maybe the most troubling part of the time-expended economic model is that it is clearly no longer delivering the sensational growth rates of the past. In 2001 (and following one lost decade), Japan became a pioneer in printing the heck out of its currency in an attempt to stimulate (or perhaps more accurately, simulate) expansion of the economy; several rounds of quantitative easing and two-and-a-half lost decades later, it is pointless to even pretend that this system is working.



1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Psychology, Urban Life

One response to “Japanese Lessons: What Japan’s Collective Sleep Deficit Teaches The Rest Of The World

  1. Excellent and incisive elucidation on the causes behind Japan’s Lost Two Decades.

    Your analysis is astute and, in my humble opinion, spot on.

    I would also agree in that presenteeism is certainly not a good thing.

    At the same time it is very much in the vogue to denigrate anybody who works ‘long’ hour – i.e. anything more than 40 hours a week, even that though is less than 75% of the average working hours of somebody in Industrial and Victorian Britain – and, of the last one hundred articles I’ve read on the subject, one hundred have berated the concept of working long hours.

    The fact is that sitting on a beach watching a series of ‘Breaking Bad’ for the third time on an iPad did not result in Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb or Einstein calculating his Theory of Relativity.

    An obsession with not working more than an average of a handful of hours a week – during a very condensced working career of, say, only three decades interspersed between three decades of ‘studying’ and three decades of retirement – is the reason why most of the continent of Europe and many middle-class households elsewhere in the world have little of brilliance to exhibit, whereas, for instance, my friends and relatives from very humble under and working-class backgrounds who have had the discipline to work long hours over many years now live the sort of lives that tend to make the aforementioned extremely jealous. Arbeit macht frei.

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