Economy

In Japan, A Troubling Link Between Samurai Spirit And Workaholics

A stressful Japanese work culture is deeply ingrained in the country's mindset, with historical roots and very modern health risks.

The dangers of being a workaholic in Japan
The dangers of being a workaholic in Japan
Kondo Daisuke

TOKYO — About two weeks ago, a superior at the publishing house where I work suddenly died. He was a well-known workaholic. With responsibilities to oversee the editorial department, he was working on the weekend to accompany a prominent writer to Hong Kong to negotiate a publishing deal.

On Sunday morning, he was awoken with a sudden and intensely painful headache. The author who was staying in the same hotel room rushed to the front desk to ask for an ambulance. It was too late.

His death was confirmed by a Hong Kong hospital, and his remains were flown back to Tokyo's Narita Airport, and finally arrived at the front gate of our company headquarters. When his wife and son stepped out of the hearse, all our company's staff went downstairs and put our palms together in prayer, facing the remains of the family.

When I returned to my office, I looked at my late colleague's desk, just next to mine. Printed documents were piled up. Books he hadn't finished reading were off to one side. Everything looked exactly as it was when he went to Hong Kong, as if he would be right back.

That cause of death was a stroke. But we could also say he died of overwork. Every few years, one colleague or another would drop dead in the same way. They were all only between 40 and 50 years old.

Though my colleague's death received no media attention, our company's largest partner — Dentsu, Japan's biggest advertising company — faced criticism last year over a worker's "karoshi" or "death from overwork."

Takahashi Matsuri, a 24-year-old working for Dentsu committed suicide last Christmas day, by leaping from a balcony in the company's dormitory. Last month, the woman's mother held a press conference to reveal that the month prior to the suicide, her daughter had been working as many as 105 hours per week, under what she described as a military-like management.

On September the 30, Japan's Labor Standards Inspection Office officially recognized that Matsuri's suicide had been triggered by the long hours and bad management, and it constituted a work-related injury. On October the 14, the Tokyo Labor Bureau carried out an internal inspection of the Dentsu headquarters, as well as its major branch offices nationwide.

As one of the world's top advertising and public relations firms, Dentsu had won a major marketing partnership with Tokyo 2020, for the summer Olympics. But the company is notorious for its abnormal working philosophy. For its corporate regulations, a former president had formulated 10 in-house rules, nicknamed the "Ghost 10 Constitution." Among these rules: "Once a task is started, one does not give it up. One rather dies if the goal is not reached!"

In ancient times, Japan imitated China's state system. The Japanese emperor was modeled on a Chinese emperor. Gathered around him were the aristocrats submitted to his authority, and thus formed the power structure of the country. Aristocrats eventually started hiring soldiers to fight wars for them — over time, though, these soldiers asked: "Why are we shedding blood for the aristocrats instead of for ourselves?" The subsequent coup against their employer, the emperor, as well as the aristocracy, led to Japan's first warrior regime: the Kamakura shogunate in 1192.

If one visits the museums specialized in the Edo period (1603-1867) during which samurai society was at its heyday, one finds very different artifacts from those of China's Palace Museum or other national museums. For instance, the so-called "treasures' at the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya are all military objects, such as armor, swords and banners. Compared with the sophisticated objects found in Chinese museums, this all seems very plain and modest.

When one thinks carefully, whether it's the "onigiri" rice ball that annually sells 1.5 billion units in 7-11 convenience stores worldwide, or the bottled tea drinks, they can all be traced back to the rations of ancient Japanese soldiers. Japan's warrior society advocated frugality, which was absolutely distinct from the world of the Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi whose daily banquet was composed of hundreds of different dishes.

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration transformed Japan from a warrior society directly into a modern military state. Subsequently, Japan's corporate world would replace the army, defeated in 1945, as the conduit by which the warrior mentality was passed down. Though Japanese national patriotism has been diminished in recent decades, it has been replaced by a spirit of loving and loyalty to one's "kaisha," the company you work for. That Matsuri became the victim of Dentsu's "Ghost 10 constitution" can be explained by the Samurai spirit so deeply rooted in today's Japanese enterprises.

Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reports that in the past year, 2,159 work-related suicides occurred. As OECD data shows, on average, Japanese employees worked 1,719 hours last year. In Germany, the average is 1371 hours, and the global norm is some 1,500 hours.

One silver lining to the Dentsu incident is that now Japan has started to question the culture of overworking. Kabu.com, a large online securities company, has launched a system to encourage employees to go home on time and take a bonafide lunch break.

Meanwhile, an IT company called SI in west Osaka, has focused on comparing working hours to actual work efficiency. The company reports that SI's labor costs went up 4% last year, but sales have risen 16%. SI was selected in March as a model enterprise and was recognized by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe personally.

All that said, Mr. Abe is often spoken of as the person who works the longest hours in Japan. It is also said that people around him are increasingly worried about his health.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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