Foreign traditions and beliefs often seem weird and unfamiliar because people view them through the lens of their culture. To understand elements of foreign culture and appreciate their value, one needs to abstain from regarding one’s cultural norms as universal and axiomatic. Some foreign practices are more difficult to accept as normal as they seem too strange and meaningless. In this way, Japanese workaholism puzzles foreigners as they do not understand how the Japanese manage to do so and, more importantly, why they need to do so. Although the Japanese tradition of overworking seems weird and unreasonable, it will make sense if one learns more about Japanese culture.
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Before looking closely at Japanese workaholic culture, one needs to note that there are no good or bad cultures; they are just different. Nowadays, tolerance and respect for cultural diversity are recognized values of civilized society. However, this idea emerged and started to spread in science only in the 20th century after American anthropologist Franz Boas expressed his relativistic views on culture (Tax). Before Boas, most anthropologists believed that some ethnic groups were “inherently more civilized or developed than others” (Brittanica). Boas found these attitudes “ethnocentric” and developed another approach of viewing the cultures called cultural relativism (Brittanica). It implies that all cultures should be considered equally capable of fulfilling the needs of their group members (Britannica). This approach allows looking at the Japanese culture critically without overly praising or criticizing it.
Another theory that would be helpful in this analysis is the classification of cultural dimensions developed by Geert Hofstede and his followers. Their theory aligns with Boas’s cultural relativism, as it accepts cultural diversity and equality. They conducted many studies on how different peoples view six major cultural issues (Hofstede Insights). According to their assessment, Japan has an exceptionally high level of Masculinity (95 out of 100) (Hofstede Insights). It means that a major source of motivation for the Japanese is achieving success rather than doing what they actually like (Hofstede Insights). Another observation, important for this analysis, is the high indicator of Uncertainty avoidance (92) that shows their reluctance to risk and violate accepted rules and procedures (Hofstede Insights). Finally, it is important to note their Long-term orientation (88), which demonstrates their fatalism and willingness to work more to ensure the companies’ durability and stability for future generations (Hofstede Insights). All these cultural characteristics contributed to the development of workaholic culture in Japan.
Now one can look at specific examples of how workaholism is represented and affected by Japanese cultural values. Demetriou points out that the need to overwork permeates the whole working atmosphere. She notes that employees have the right to take a 20 days annual leave, but they often abstain from it due to pressure from the managers and colleagues (Demetriou). They would view it as a breach of accepted procedure and betrayal of the team (Demetriou). Japanese workaholic culture is also reflected in some notions and terms related to working ethics in Japan. The first one is “kyosei,” which can be translated as “living and working together for the common good” (McManus Warnell and Umeda 25). It is one of the basic principles of business ethics in Japan (McManus Warnell and Umeda). Another term is “karoshi,” or the death from excessive workload, including suicides (Xiao 357). It may be caused by various cardiovascular and mental disorders that emerged after performing high-stress work for a long time (Xiao 357). Thus, one can state that workaholism is deeply rooted in Japanese culture.
To conclude, workaholism has long become a cultural trait of the Japanese people. According to the theory of cultural relativism, it is neither good nor bad, and foreigners should not look at the Japanese overworking practice via the lens of their culture and judge it. Workaholism is deeply rooted in their culture and is the reason for both successes and problems, including oppressive working atmosphere, employee’s cardiovascular and mental conditions, and exceptionally high level of deaths due to overwork.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Franz Boas Summary”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Web.
Demetriou, Danielle. “How the Japanese are putting an end to extreme work weeks.” BBC Worklife, 2020, Web.
as little as 3 hours
Hofstede Insights. (n.d.). Country Comparison: Japan. Web.
McManus Warnell, Jessica & Umeda, Toru. “Perspectives on Business Ethics in the Japanese Tradition: Implications for Global Understanding of the Role of Business in Society.” Asian Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 8, 2019, pp. 25–51, Web.
Tax, Sol. “Franz Boas”. Encyclopedia Brittanica, Web.
Xiao, Ning, et al. “Karoshi May Be a Consequence of Overwork-Related Malignant Arrhythmia.” Medical Science Monitor, vol. 25, 2019, pp. 357-364, Web.