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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.