Low Productivity, Japan’s Dirty Little Secret

“The streets are so clean!” “Such excellent service.” “Public Transportation is quiet, clean and efficient.” “Gift wrapping is included with any purchase?!” “Japanese students clean their own classrooms!” “The streets are safe.”

These are the common refrains you hear everywhere about Japan, and I left out quite a few for brevity sake. All these statements are relatively true, but unfortunately Japan and its global marketing team seem to hide behind these staple compliments in order to avoid the most distressing issue that is literally killing the country. That being the utter lack of productivity in the daily lives of its citizens.

Yes, there are some Japanese who lead productive lives for sure. But those outliers really don’t make up for those hordes of salarymen (a dirty word in my household) who toil away way past the standard nine to five (which has become somewhat anachronistic in much of the wider world).

If your average salaryman was being fully productive even half the hours they work in a day, we’d still be talking about Japan as Number One, just like it was back in 1984 and everyone had to have a Sony Walkman. Obviously, somewhere along the line Japan lost its way when it came to productivity in the workplace.

As I mentioned in a previous somewhat tongue and cheek post, most regular employees at Japanese companies “work” incredibly long hours. Some don’t even get paid overtime for it either. But the reality is that most people are “at work”, as in physically there but accomplishing nothing, rather than “working”. If they were producing great products and services, Japan would be in the international business headlines rather than the puff pieces about Harajuku street fashion, women’s panties vending machines, and the abnormal abdication of an abnormal looking emperor. Sorry, I won’t back down, lèse-majesté be damned. (note to readers: Japan has no lèse-majesté laws, but it is very rare to hear anyone crack a joke about the imperial family)

The old trade unions had the right idea!

Instead, people toil away their time at work, abandon their current family or fail to start one of their own. Hobbies and interests basically take a back seat to corporate drudgery once college life ends. No time for such frivolity as an adult. At least not any serious frivolity. Frivolity is for pensioners. But here in live-way-past-your-expiration-date Japan, the pensioner age keeps getting pushed back. So even less time to enjoy your favorite pastime in life’s twilight.

My point is this. Very few of these Japanese firms are setting the world on fire in terms of innovation. They don’t require office workers to be burning the midnight oil. Most everyone can afford, and should take a step back from being “at work” and come home during normal rush hour (5:00-6:00 PM), eat dinner together with their family, and indulge in one or several hobbies. Enjoy it! The nation won’t suddenly sink into the Pacific Ocean if Mr. Takahashi heads home at 5:00. Everything will be OK. I swear.

What do you think?