The Salary Man Lifestyle: A Japanese Work Ethic or Unjust Labor Laws?


In November 2007, third-generation Toyota employee Kenichi Uchino collapsed at work at 4 a.m. after putting in more than 80 hours of overtime for six months. The 30-year-old’s widow, Hiroko, later told reporters that her husband had been overworked by the company, training employees and writing reports that caused him to work overtime hours officially considered to be “voluntary and unpaid.” Hiroko took it upon herself to take Toyota to the Nagoya District Court, only to find out that the court ruled Uchino’s overtime an integral part of the job and immediately dropped the case. “The moment when I am happiest is when I can sleep,” Uchino had told his wife the week of his death.

In contemporary Japan, “salary man” is an identity of Japanese society that has wreaked havoc on the lives of many families and continues to be an example of unjust labor laws in the country. A salary man is a white-collar businessman, working for either a Japanese company or a government ministry, with a fixed pay — hence, the term “salary man.” The long hours, the relatively low wages, and the lack of career development opportunities are causing Japanese men and women to live monotonous lives, working an average of 60 to 80 hours a week.

For the typical salary man, the day starts between 6 and 6:30 a.m., when he is having the typical breakfast his wife kindly prepared for him an hour before. By 7 a.m., he leaves his home to commute to work, most likely from a city outside of Tokyo, such as Chiba. Luckily for the salary man, Japan’s world-renowned transportation system, more specifically the high-speed bullet trains that operate up to 200 mph, is sure to get him to Tokyo by the end of the hour. The salary man gets to his desk on time, but the rest of his colleagues have already removed their blazers and are standing equidistant from each other. Backs straight and shoulders square, it is evident that it is time for the morning exercise, a ritual that requires employees to perform stretches before work begins. Throughout the day, the salary man collaborates with his supervisor and co-workers, the entire team seated together in order to create a smooth working environment that encourages teamwork and communication. The typical salary man leaves the office well past 5 p.m.; some work until 10 p.m., others until midnight, and a few remain in the office until two in the morning. For the salary men that do live nearby the office, an infamous shuffle can occur, in which a salary man takes a taxi home and with the driver on standby, has a quick shower, dashes back into the taxi and grabs a small meal at a 24-hour fast food chain before heading back to the office. Unsurprisingly, the amount of work and restless days eventually take a toll on the dedicated employee, and the Japanese government fails to impose proper labor laws that could save lives.


Image source: © The Economist

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a statistic presented in 2012 shows that the Japanese are actually working
less than they did in 1990. While Korea, Israel, Hungary and Greece are deemed to be the most hard-working nations in the world according to the OECD, it is important to note that most of the overtime that the salary men commit to are unaccounted for during these studies. Why? In Japanese business culture, one is expected to devote any and all efforts to one’s job without any expectation of recognition. In fact, although fixed-term employees are paid much less than permanent workers, they are expected to go beyond their assigned jobs, as their positions are merely temporary. According to Hifumi Okunuki’s article on Japanese labor laws in the Japan Times newspaper, large Japanese retailers pay winter bonuses between ¥400,000 and ¥500,000 ($4,000 – $5,000) to permanent employees, while fixed-term employees who do the same work only get a bonus of about ¥20,000 ($200.) Even more alarming, Japanese companies have constantly abused the fixed-term contracts by keeping their employees far beyond the end date in order to “slash labor costs and shirk social and economic responsibility.” With the failure of the Japanese government to properly implement laws to protect employees of multi-national companies, activism would be a likely step for employees to take. However, their employers are already one step ahead; with more and more companies opting to offer six-month contracts to new hires with no renewals, Okunuki explains that it would be unlikely for an employee to join a group thus preventing “further unionization.” Japan has, in fact, ratified conventions recommended by the International Labor Union (ILO) such as Article 6, requiring the government to establish regulations in order to have fixed hours of overtime work. However, according to the National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi (death by overwork), this law has only been set for women, and no steps have been made to implement these laws for male workers. Based on studies accumulated by the Counsel, Japanese male workers actually work 2,700 to 3,000 hours a year,[1] in comparison to the average South Korean employee who works 2,357 hours a year.[2]

The effects of the business culture in Japan have taken a toll on employees, companies, and the country itself. Former CEO of Olympus, Michael Woodford, was dismissed from his job in 2011 after he called attention to “irregular payments” made by the company, along with “poor business attitude and ethos,” not only at Olympus but throughout Japan. Woodford was the first non-Japanese citizen to head Olympus, an extremely rare occurrence in the Japanese business world. However, upon his questioning of investments that turned out to be covers hiding huge losses, Olympus admitted their mistake, but not without firing Woodford first. As it turned out, the company had incurred $1.7 billion in losses over the past 20 years, resulting in a scandal that dropped shares by 81 percent. Woodford criticized the corporate culture of Japan, telling CNBC, “They don’t promote young people and women. There are no women in middle management, never mind in senior management.”[3] Patrick Perret-Green, former Citigroup head of Asian currency and rates strategy who had worked for Japanese firms in the past, added on to Woodford’s statement, saying that he sees “the only salvation available for Japan being a complete cultural and social revolution.” Perret-Green also touches on the issue of women in Japanese workplaces being harmful for the country, explaining: “A classic example is the role and status of women in Japanese society. They are ridiculously underutilized. In most advanced economies, women account for roughly 40 percent of managers. In Japan it is about 10 percent.” Woodford and Perret-Green are not the only foreign businessmen who have cautioned Western companies when investing in Japan. Japan remains the third largest economy in the world. With a GDP of $5.96 trillion,[4] but with a debt of $10.5 trillion,[5] it is undeniable that a further decline in productivity and proper work ethics in Japanese companies could send the country deeper into economic turmoil.

The exploitation of the salary man, caught in between the limbo of loyalty to his company and to himself, has resulted in nationwide phenomena called karoshi (death by overwork) and karojisatsu (suicide due to overwork and stress.) A report written by Sugio Furuya was published by the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV), listing case studies of individuals suffering from work-related deaths; from a 22-year-old nurse dying from a heart attack after continuous 34-hour shifts five times a month to a 58-year-old employee of a major printing company who had worked 4,320 hours a year before suffering a stroke,[6] the pattern was too common for it to be left unnoticed. Furuya’s report claims that experts estimate almost 10,000 workers die of karoshi every year, with one in 30 male workers in their 30’s working over 3,000 hours a year, and approximately 31,000 employees dying each year due to karojisatsu. Since the Japanese Association of Industrial Health first highlighted the issue of karoshi in 1978, extensive research on the issue has been performed, from trends to causes of occupational stress, including: long hours, all-night and holiday work, psychological burdens due to excessive pressures, and even forced resignation during staff cutbacks.[7] Due to added pressures from organizations in and outside of Japan, the government has recognized karoshi and karojistasu as occupational diseases, offering compensation to families who lose their loved ones to overwork. However, this is a very rare occurrence due to the bureaucracy of the process and the involvement of lawsuits when companies deny families compensation.

Hiroaki Semba is a current intern in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern University, and served as an employee for the Ministry of Education in Japan. He notes the differences between the Japanese and American work culture and how this contrast has required him to adjust. “It’s totally different,” He said. “In my experience, my ‘office’ is shared with a group. I have always worked across from my supervisors and along with colleagues; our desks are facing each other and because of that we are able to communicate with each other. It’s a collective. It’s all about team work.” When asked about overtime, Semba admitted that he does get frustrated whenever he is unable to stay in the office longer with unfinished work still on his desk, “There is no overtime here. Sometimes I do want to work overtime to complete today’s agenda but they [his co-workers] don’t usually think about it because they know they can just do it tomorrow.” Semba suggests that it could be a ‘culture thing,’ explaining, “I think the Japanese are kind of perfectionists, they always work to be perfect with everything.” The cultural aspect is indeed a huge part of why the Japanese work environment is the way it is, and this type of attitude toward work is present in the minds of many citizens from all generations. Semba’s mother is in a situation that many women in Japan are currently experiencing, “My mother is maybe 56 or 57 and she has worked for the same company since she was 18.” Semba also revealed that his mother has never been promoted and is still an “office lady” to this day, like many women in corporate Japan who usually serve as secretaries and administrative assistants to high-position businessmen.

The lifestyle of the salary man is one that continues to be prevalent all over Japan. With their monotonous business suits and their tired eyes hidden behind thick-framed glasses, the salary men of Japan have turned into ghosts that are working themselves to death, all for the sake of being ‘loyal to the company.’ This type of work ethic needs to be discouraged by both the government through proper implementation of laws and by employers nationwide in order to decrease the number of suicides and work-related deaths that are haunting the country. The government of Japan claims that it is doing whatever it can to improve its economic state, but in order for the country to rise up economically, the government must find a way to remove the burden of what has now become $10.5 trillion of debt. In order to lighten the weight of this debt, the country needs productivity within the labor market. But how can the country improve productivity, when its employees are dying at the hands of the companies that are supposed to uphold the laws that were made to protect them? Beyond business and economics, the issue of salary men in Japan is a social problem that needs to be reformed, and reformed fast, as this type of lifestyle can be passed down from generation to generation. The social and cultural revolution described by Perret-Green could be exactly what the country needs in order to save the tens of thousands of lives that are taken every year. The Japanese need to know that there is, in fact, no job in this world that is to die for.

Kaoru Inoue
International Affairs ’17


1] Karoshi Hotline National Network, “Japanese Laws Concerning Overwork and Paid Annual Leave and International Norms.”
[2] Olson, Parmy. Forbes, “The World’s Hardest-Working Countries.”
[3] Clinch, Matt. CNBC, “Short Japan Over Its Business Culture: Ex-Olympus CEO.”
[4] The World Bank, GDP.
[5] Riley, Charles. CNN Money, “Japan Debt Tops 1 Quadrillion Yen.”
[6] Furuya, Sugio. ANROEV, “Karoshi and Karojisatsu in Japan.”
[7] International Labour Organization, “Case Study: Karoshi.”–en/index.htm




There are 3 comments

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  1. Will George

    So do you think its related to the Japanese and Korean educational system, the expectation that you study early then after school in the library and further in the cram schools? The senpai kohai relationship is pretty often cited for this kind of problem, and going forward is this going to be a generational change as younger cohorts draw on Western business practice or does government need to mandate a change.

    Also a conclusion I draw is that if you want to increase national productivity, actually use the half of the workforce that are currently neglected. Women bring so much to a workplace as intellectuals and it is almost criminal that they are woefully under represented and under respected as people with as much or more to give that the people they are forced to photocopy for. The best place to start with this is for government to aim to have 40% female membership by the end of the decade, or are they too happy with their boys club to give up a good thing when they have it.

    Finally the interview with the rep is frustrating for me! How can Japanese be perfectionists when they are such bad managers, is it merely seen as a case of attrition or survival of the fittest. Surely being a good manager also means having a happy, healthy and diverse workforce. Until these become measured and valued metrics rather than merely the turnover, profit and bottom line.

  2. Kaoru Inoue

    It definitely starts early; in Japanese schools it is pretty much the same format: never question the upperclassmen and even more so the teachers. Starting in schools could be a good start but it will have to be with the leadership of the Ministry of Education. With the government being full of extremely conservative members however, I do not see things improving any time soon.

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