Thursday, November 18, 2004

Japanese people overwork, ILO points out

Just received an update on the above topic from the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training.

The update says, 'According to the results of a recent ILO survey, more than one out of four Japanese people work more than 50 hours per week. As of 2000, 28.1% of the Japanese workforce worked 50 hours or more per week--the highest among countries surveyed--followed by New Zealand at 21.3%, the US at 20.0%, Australia at 20.0%, and the UK at 15.5%. They were followed by countries with rates under 10%, such as Ireland and Greece at 6.2%, Spain at 5.8%, and France at 5.7%. Sweden and the Netherlands had a rate of only between 1 and 2%. Although Japanese workers are infamous for working excessively long hours, these results provide stunning evidence especially when compared to the low levels posted by countries in Europe.'

Personally, I have observed that my supervisor-professor always was in his office everyday, even on Saturdays and Sundays. I have a Japanese friend who worked in the bank. His day started from 7:30 in the morning, and ended at about midnight. Very little of the excess time spent was recorded as overtime work. He could not take it anymore. He quit to take up Japanese classical flute music. A friend working for a major manufacturer of plastics and synthetic clothing ends his working days at past 11:00 pm everyday.

But looking at the ILO survey data, the difference between Japan on the one hand and New Zealand, US, and Australia on the other hand is only about 7 to 8 %. Not a whole lot, unless we compare Japan with countries such as Spain, France, or the Netherlands, which have rates below 10%.

But beneath these ILO figures, lies a (Japanese) man on the run...

The small Japanese house forces the husband to find his own space... outside the house, that is. So, he hangs in the office even when there is nothing much to do. The 'standard story' is that the husband goes off to work early every morning, only to return home late at night just to sleep. The wife gets to be the sole occupant of the house, children withstanding. There is no 'space' for the husband in the house.

A well used Japanese saying goes 'teishu ha genki de rusu ga ii', meaning, it is good to have a healthy husband who does not loiter around in the house.

'Healthy', so as to be able to work hard and bring the bread home. 'Not loitering around the house', so that the wife can go about doing her own household things like, washing clothes, vacuuming, and engaging in small talk with friends, et cetera.

In the event that the husband is forced to stay indoors, he rolls around the tatami mat, reading girlie magazines, and watching gossipy television programs. The likelihood of this happening is during the New Year in January (O-shogatsu), the 'Golden Week' between late April and early May, and the O-bon holidays in August when families visit the graveyards of their ancestors to pay respects. During these times, the offices and factories are closed; the highways are jammed up, the airports so crowded.

The housewives have a word or two for this behavior: 'Nure ochiba' (wet fallen leaf) and 'Ogata gomi' (oversized rubbish).

The wife vacuums the tatami mat. She encounters the husband rolling on the mat and refusing to vacate. Just like a wet fallen leaf, she finds it hard to peel him off, hence 'Nure ochiba'.

Japan has a very strict order in garbage disposal. Where I live, Mondays and Fridays are for kitchen scraps, Thursdays for plastics, Wednesdays are only for recyclable bottles and metals. People wishing to get rid of the oversized rubbish such as wardrobes and tables need to call a special truck to come by. As for the housewife, she finds it quite a task to remove the husband from the tatami mats. He lies there, rolling to the left and then to the right, like a stubborn piece 'ogata gomi'.

'Not loitering around the house' has another harsh aspect to it. My Japanese research partner currently lives about five minutes by foot from the university. He used to work for IBM in Tokyo and spent four hours commuting to and fro the office. When he first came here, he happily strolled home during one lunch break, expecting lunch on the table, only to be told off by his wife. 'I am already cooking two meals, breakfast and dinner for you. I cannot and will not cook a third meal for you. So, please eat your lunch at the university cafeteria.' He told me he had a shock.

Finally, as if this is not enough for our man on the run...

I know of an elderly Japanese lady at Nagoya who had a lot of headaches on what to do with her husband who just retired from work. He stays in the house all day, practically doing nothing. She was getting tired of seeing him all day and night. She tried to encourage him to take classes on pottery, drawing, or gardening. Nothing seems to interest him. For him, all his life, it had been work, work, and work.

A few years ago, the phrase 'taishoku rikon' (retirement divorce) was a hot topic.

The typical line went... on the last day of work, the wife welcomes the husband with the usual welcome home greeting, 'o kaeri nasai', followed by 'nagai aida, go kuro sama deshita' (you have suffered a long time). And just as our man sits down for his habitual evening beer, this time to celebrate his final release from decades of work, his wife drops the bombshell.

The children have long grown up. And she does not plan to waste her winter days cooking three meals a day for her husband. She yearns to be free, to go for a sip of coffee at the neighborhood cafe, to do her own thingy.

Maybe my next post will be on why the (Japanese) men tend to kick the bucket earlier than their women...