Taro Aso, speaking before a parliamentary committee, recently said that “Japan’s belief in hard work contrasted with that of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” and that world religions could learn from Japan’s work ethic. Interesting. Apparently he hasn’t read Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
In any case, it’s undeniable that Japan’s workers work a lot of hours (though Australians work more, and the third, fourth, and fifth spots go to the U.S. Canada, and the UK – Weber gets the last laugh). And Japanese companies are famous for requiring unpaid overtime. But how much of that “work” is really “hard”? As software engineer Peter Gibbons points out in the film Office Space, it’s easily possible to show up and punch the time card without getting anything done or even exerting serious effort. Twiddling your thumbs and surfing sports news while you wait for the boss to go home does not count as “work ethic.”
Now, I’m in no position to know how much time Japanese workers spend twiddling their thumbs. But I am in a position to know that Japanese white-collar labor productivity is substantially lower than most other rich nations (including Asian nations such as Taiwan and Singapore). That means that whatever is getting done in all those long hours Japanese people spend in the office, it’s not as much as it could be. Any physics student will tell you that work equals force times distance*; Japanese workers put in a lot of force without getting enough distance.
Japan’s leaders should recognize this distinction. We all know the story of how government protection of Japan’s domestic service sector has left it inefficient, but it’s important to realize the real impact this has on the lives of Japanese people – parents who can’t go home to be with their children, salaries that are lower than they could be, exhausting hours of work put in with not enough to show for it at the end of the day. Maybe Aso should take a clue from King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 4:14, and help the Japanese people to work smarter, not harder.
– Noah Smith