Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bushido: The Way of the OverWorker

I am constantly struggling with the mentality toward work here. Most teachers spend a minimal amount of time AWAY from school, lucky to get their weekends free - and that`s only if they don`t have a club team to run. I think the service industry is the only sector that has fairly rigid set hours, and allows its workers to leave promptly when their shifts are finished. Anything more involved than a job at Tully`s, you`re putting in 12 hours (not counting travel) and catching the 9pm train home. Why? Why!? WHY!!!

According to `The Japanese Mind,` this workoholism relates to the tradition of Bushido, the way of the warrior, which is a blending of previous Zen Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian beliefs (all from China) rehashed to become the samurai`s ethic during the Edo Period (bushi is another word for the samurai, the warrior class). Most relevantly, this ethic involved exhaustive repetition and training to acheive perfect forms (which I`ll return to in a later post), complete devotion to your lord, and above all exertion. What`s most interesting, as the book points out, is that exertion itself is not sufficient. The goal was not merely sufficient exertion to acheive a certain goal, as might seem most reasonable. The goal was to be seen over-exerting yourself. Combined with honour gained by self-sacrifice in the name of your leader, this meant that the ultimate goal of the ethic was in fact death. Essentially, you work yourself so hard, constantly, that you`re bound to die in a scuffle or battle eventually. There is the paradoxical focus on acheiving honour (for your self) through self-effacement, working your self to death for another`s sake.

This might explain a lot of things about modern Japan. Not that it`s so simple as smacking a `bushido` label on modern phenomenon, or that every Japanese is daily looking for ways to die through their labour. However, the mentality of self-sacrifice and over-exertion surfaced in the WWII soldiers who killed their own offspring to free themselves to go to war, perhaps even as a kamikaze pilot. This mentality surfaces in the executives whose lives are inseperable from the companies they run, and who kill themselves if the company falters or a scandal is discovered. `karoushi` is the Japanese word for death by overwork.

The conundrum is that in a way, the excesses and the tragedy are admired, or at least expected. If you ask teachers why they don`t take a holiday, usually they make up excuses. Apparently taking leave or working only regular hours can hurt your career`s progress. Our Manager at the Board of Education has repeatedly but without justification emphasized that, though we are allotted 20 days paid holiday, `true` Japanese workers don`t take holidays. In fact, only when they are sick do they use their paid holidays (instead of using their stack of sick days). If you suggest that holidays might have a positive impact on people`s lives, you`re likely to hear the common refrain that there isn`t time, work is too busy.

So, what are people here doing that people elsewhere aren`t? If you look at per capita output, (I`m gonna go ahead and not back this up with a source, please correct me if you have one) Japan no longer outproduces most other wealthy nations. If you ask people on the ground, like JETs, you might discover that people waste a lot of time at work. Teachers unnecessarily rehash materials just to create something to do. Then there`s the endless meetings and creating published reports for the meetings (which wastes an unimaginable amount of paper), which usually cover information that people already know. Other than that, teachers kill time by clipping their nails, perusing newspapers, and occasionally watching some TV or a movie in the evening. I`m not saying teachers don`t work hard; they do! Only, they have to somehow come up with stuff to do on top of the sufficient amount of work they do.

Of course, the biggest extension of work hours has got to be the clubs. Club attendence is pretty close to mandatory, mostly enforced by social pressure. What boggles me though, is that you don`t get to grow out of this pressure when you grow up. Teachers are expected to join clubs too, which is why you get overlapping (many coaches to a team), and worse, teachers having to sponsor clubs for which they have no experience, expertise, or even liking. Because the ethic extends to the students, these clubs run for insane hours - four hours after school everyday, and possibly both days on the weekends (usually just one), with games and tournaments showing no regard for public holidays. And, watching these clubs, you see that a lot of time wasting goes on there too. So, a hard-working teacher who does her best to educate the students, and stay on top of her work-load, has to stay at school long past the contracted hours, coming in on most weekends, even if this means creating busywork, or joining a club in which she has no interest whatsoever.

I point out the inefficiencies because they are what frustrate me most about the overworking. People at work (I`m gonna go ahead and assume this is true in all sectors), teachers at school, students in club: everybody could acheive the same amount of work, output or improvement (in clubs) with the same or possibly less effort spent more efficiently in less time.
I somewhat grasp the often-cited `group mentality`, which could potentially mean nobody wants to leave their institutional group and go off to do something else. But the practice of overworking contrasts with so many people`s complaints (for example, by the teacher`s union), and ignores the high rates of depression, suicide, and alcoholism among what should be otherwise well-off workers. I keep struggling to understand...

...but, a slight turn of phrase makes it make sense. The goal is to be seen not only exerting, but over-exerting. The goal is not even to acheive or to complete, but to exert. And so, if you stop to take a holiday, or even go home at your designated hours, or when you`ve finished a task, you`re not really pushing yourself, are you?

This still isn`t enough for me though. Who are they trying to impress? It`s not much of a sacrifice for the group if the group as a whole is less efficient and produces less as a result. Why does the system pressure people to expend all their time and energy at work, when nobody really wants to do this? When the government legislated a 6- and then 5-day school and work week (presumably for the sake of people`s well-being), enrollment in cram schools shot way up, and school clubs expanded to fill the slack time; time spent at work did not drastically decrease. But if the highest official authority, the government, is asking people to lead more balanced lives, who keeps insisting on the unnecessary standard of over-exertion?

People do it to themselves, for nobody, the worst possible option.