Back in my early days as an English teacher, I had an eye-opening lesson at a school in central Tokyo. The class was comprised of a group of salarymen and on the day’s syllabus was a pertinent topic: work-life balance.
As the students slowly warmed to me, decoding my Northern Irish accent and backchanneling my tangents with “Mhmms” of acknowledgment, the lesson took on a different shape. I became an unwitting psychiatrist, as though the 10 students were prostrate on chaises lounges, gazing towards the ceiling and walking me through the hardships of their all-encompassing careers.
“What’s one thing you’d change in your life?” I asked a man with bags under his eyes, matching the hue of his charcoal suit.
“Quit my job,” he said with a wry smile. “I hate my job.”
“How about you?” I said to another, old enough to be my grandfather.
“Make time for not work.”
Despite the tone shift, there was a freeness to the whole affair, a catharsis. These men who had lived their lives in service to the company, products of the bubble economy and survivors of the Lost Generation, were peeling back the curtain, showing me the world of the overworked Tokyo salaryman.
It was the first time I got a real sense of how work dominates leisure in the Japanese capital. Even framing the conversation in terms of “balance” felt like deception. Of course, I was wet behind the ears. When you’ve lived here a bit longer, the all-work-no-play nature of corporate Japan becomes a conversational cliché. But the lesson has stuck with me, nonetheless.
It came into view again when I happened upon a recent survey that put Tokyo among the least desirable cities to live in as an expat. The survey responses were filled with common refrains: “outdated work culture,” “the work-life balance is difficult,” “long working hours and demanding supervisors.”
The concept of overwork is not unique to Tokyo — most of the world’s megacities suffer from this malaise, especially in industries where the pursuit of economic growth eclipses all else. But Japan has infamously low levels of productivity, posing serious questions about how overwork manifests itself. Add to that a declining population and half of all companies facing chronic labor shortages, making Tokyo, the thumping pacemaker of Japan’s 4-trillion-dollar economy, a more appealing place to work ought to be a matter of national duty.
A Telling Survey?
InterNations, the world’s “largest global community,” surveyed almost 12,000 people, representing 177 nationalities, about life abroad. Focusing on five indices — Quality of Life, Ease of Settling In, Working Abroad, Personal Finance, Expat Essentials — it tries to ascertain what the world is like “through expat eyes.”
In the overall ranking of best city to live as an expat, Tokyo came 42nd out of 50. In the Work Culture & Satisfaction subcategory, Tokyo landed dead last. For Working Hours, Work & Leisure and Work-Life Balance, respectively, it landed in the bottom five. In The Ease of Settling In index, Tokyo came 39th and in terms of Expat Essentials (including language, admin and digitization) it ranked 45th.
These are not anomalous results.
Since the survey was first conducted in 2017, Tokyo has rarely been out of the bottom 10 in the Work & Leisure subcategory and only once has it made into the top 50 — this year, in which only 50 cities were ranked. Tokyo also fares consistently poorly in the Ease of Settling In index, which covers assimilation to life in the city, friendliness of locals towards foreigners and quality of social life.
While such surveys are by design subjective, buried within them is a kernel of truth.
In a recent study of the most overworked populations — i.e. the highest percentage of workers clocking more than 48 hours per week — Asian capitals were notorious, with Tokyo coming sixth overall. When paired with corporate Japan’s wage-based seniority ladders, which “undermine the dynamism of Japanese companies,” as one economist recently put it to me, it’s clear the system requires a paradigm shift.
Settling in is a harder concept to quantify, but anyone who has moved here from far afield will appreciate it takes time to feel fully comfortable. There is a paradoxical loneliness that Tokyo, the most populous city on the planet, often foments in wide-eyed arrivals. And as the country became more foreign-averse during the pandemic — locking out tax-paying residents, issuing edicts to avoid mingling with foreigners, praising Japanese cultural superiority for keeping the virus at bay — it’s no wonder perceptions of local friendliness have suffered.
How much can a survey speak for the masses? Personally, I love living in Tokyo, with all its vitality and possibilities, its incomparable convenience and production-line efficiency, its roaring ambition yet dyed-in-the-wool humility, and how it enables tens of millions of overlapping inhabitants to live in utopian safety.
However, I’m a freelance journalist, which is only half a job at the best of times. I don’t clock long hours at a Japanese company, I’m not subjected to ostracization in interminable meetings because my keigo isn’t up to snuff and I don’t have to claw tooth-and-nail to get a few extra days leave. Work is that thing I do in between periods of leisure — not a modus operandi I recommended imitating, mind you — and having been here five years already I’m somewhat assimilated.
The author Donald Richie once posited that every journey is also something of a flight. And with that comes the weight of expectation; a chance to avoid the vicissitudes of life; to experience something fresh and new, and in a tangible sense, better.
There are 1.7 million foreign workers in Japan, which suggests people are still willing to make the journey. But I do wonder how many are asking themselves if was all worth the flight?