The Japanese Way: “Death from overwork”

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Teachers’ tables brimming with paperwork. (Photo by Courtney Coppernoll)

By Courtney Coppernoll

Of all the things the Japanese are famous for – sushi, ninja, a level of cuteness that would make kittens nauseous – their work ethic is probably one of the most well-known. Unpaid overtime and weekend workdays are common practice and it’s not unusual for employees to see far more of their co-workers than they do of their families. In fact, the Japanese have become so notorious for their work habits that there is even a Japanese word, karoushi, which means “death from overwork.”*

As most of you already know, teachers in Japan are far from being an exception to this work-centered lifestyle. At my schools, for instance, one kyoto-sensei is always at work by 6:40 a.m. and never leaves before 9:00 p.m. The rest of the teachers routinely work 60-65 hours a week, not including weekends or the hour commute to and from school. Yet, after talking to some of my co-workers, I discovered that this wasn’t always the case. In days gone by teachers used to actually go home at 5 p.m.

Why then, I asked, do they now work so late? I told one teacher that I suspected them of pretending to have meetings until I went home, but that as soon as I was out of sight the balloons and streamers came out and they all had wild parties in the staffroom late into the night. Needless to say she rolled her eyes at me. So, what is it that keeps teachers at school until all hours, and sometimes even overnight?

  • Multiple Duties – My teachers all mentioned multiple responsibilities (meaning, in addition to teaching) as a reason for their long hours. The most frequently mentioned time-consumers were supervising clubs or homerooms, teaching or attending demonstration lessons, attending meetings, and preparing for school events (i.e. Culture Festival).
  • Job Security – One school secretary told me that, because of the poor economy, teachers are worried about losing their jobs. So, teachers feel the need to be more “competitive” with their co-workers by working longer hours to ensure that their jobs stay safe.
  • Fewer Teachers – In many schools around Japan, teaching positions have either been cut or teachers simply aren’t replaced when they retire. For instance, the first grade teacher at one of my schools also serves as the English and music teacher (the latter wasn’t replaced after retirement). The two junior high schools I work at also share the same music and art teachers, who alternate days between the schools. This same trend applies to JETs, who typically visit multiple schools (some going to 15 or more).
  • Reports – Every school employee I talked to universally agreed that paperwork is the main cause of longer working hours. The Japanese education system places great value on the “sharing of information” within and between schools, and between schools and boards of education. Plus, one teacher said, the increased use of computers has made it much easier for boards of education to monitor individual teachers and schools. So, in addition to planning and teaching classes, teachers spend a lot of time writing up weekly lesson plans (which must be submitted to the principal for review), compiling test score data, completing and evaluating surveys about various aspects of school life, reporting to the board of education and PTA about school activities, and assessing their fellow teachers’ lessons.

So, there you have it. “Now hold on just one minute,” I hear you saying. “What about my teacher who falls asleep – and snores rather loudly on top of it – in the middle of the staffroom every week? And what about my teachers who never plan lessons, but just follow exactly what the textbook says? What are they doing at school until 8 o’clock at night?” My answer to that, my friends, is simply: “I don’t know, but maybe you could ask them and find out?”

Remember that I am not writing this column to speak for every situation there is (that would conflict far too harshly with the truth of ESID!) I am simply reporting the information I receive from the Japanese around me. There will always be exceptions, but, for many teachers, these are the reasons that keep them at school so late every day.

Still, whatever the drawbacks may be, all the teachers I talked to genuinely enjoy their jobs. I also know of at least one employee at my board of education who would give up his administrative position in a heartbeat to be back in the classroom again. With love like that, who needs shorter hours, right?

* The concept of karoushi has become so prevalent that it’s even been turned into a computer game called “Karoshi: Suicide Salaryman,” in which players take on the role of a blue-suited sarariman from Karoshi Corp. and must die instead of survive in order to clear each level. Play it here: http://www.kongregate.com/games/Venbrux/karoshi-suicide-salaryman

6 comments

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  • This also helps us to understand another problem that is becoming quite serious in Japan. No on is having children anymore. Who has the time? When you are working so many long hours, you can’t manage a family. Japan is going to pay dearly for this error in judgment someday when their population is literally cut in half. I’m not even sure they realize the connection yet.

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  • I dont know if it’s really death from overwork as much as it is death from being required to be at work – I’ve never seen people spend so many hours AT work before, but that’s not to say real work is getting done all the time 😉

  • Actually, Japanese workers are some of the best at looking busy that I’ve seen. They are staunch followers of the company rule that the boss should arrive last and leave first (not uncommon in other countries either). Also, the concept of leaving at 5 just because you got all your work done (popular in Australia) is rare here. Actually, I’ve heard that some Scandinavian companies have been offering assistance and efficiency training to workers who can’t complete their workload within their normal working hours. Seems like something Japan could benefit from.

    Not to say all Japanese workers are inefficient or lazy. But neither are they all paragons of efficiency and dedication.

  • Chris

    The bit about the principal reviewing the lesson plans sounds totally right to me.

    I work for a Japanese company and if there is one thing they excel in, it is micro-managing everything. The senior management never have any time for their senior management duties because they are so busy checking all the paperwork being produced by the people under them, who are also so busy producing mountains of paperwork explaining everything that they do, instead of actually doing productive work.

    Little wonder their economy is such a mess and they have put in so much overtime.