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What Purpose Work?

– The difference between striving East and striving West –shibuya_station_crowd.jpg

Two and a half weeks in Tokyo and Osaka have given me the opportunity to ponder the meaning of work. No, let me rephrase that — these two and a half weeks have slammed me with the non-stop nature of work in Japan: leave the house at 6:30 a.m., return home at 10 p.m. or later, and make sure you dress sharp.

Work, the noun. In Japanese it’s shigoto, written using the two kanji characters below:


Each character can be read separately as the verb tsukaeru. Tsukaeru means “to serve,” in the sense of subordinating oneself to the goals of a superior — or to destiny itself.

On a recent evening, finding myself with some time to consider the true meaning of shigoto, I lingered at the bookstore nearest my adopted home to peruse a book entitled Nan no tame ni hataraku no ka? (What Purpose Work?). In it, author Kitao Yoshitaka explores and compares Japanese and U.S. work ethics.

In the U.S., Kitao writes, work is about fulfilling one’s personal aspirations. For most businesspeople, the goal is to raise one’s worth as measured in money, then periodically resell oneself to a new employer at a higher wage. Job-hopping, in other words, is the path to further achievement and greater status.

Like most stereotypes, this view has some basis in fact.

The Eastern conception of work differs, says Kitao. In Japan, work traditionally meant striving in accordance with one’s destiny, dedicating oneself to serving the public good. In other words, it’s not about you.

shibuya_crowd1.jpgA decade of living in Japan and dozens of visits over the past twenty years has convinced me that — with many, many individual exceptions — Kitao’s view of the difference between working East and working West is spot on. His point is that growing Japanese acceptance of the Western (meaning U.S.) work ethic is altering the nature of work in Japan — and not for the better.

He’s right on that point, too. Nonetheless, a fundamental difference remains. That owes, in my view, to the individualist nature of Western societies, and the collectivist nature of Eastern societies. Even in today’s Japan, most people remain oriented more to the collective — the family, the organization, the nation — than to the individual self.

Noting the clock ticking towards nine, I bought Nan no tame ni hataraku no ka? and exited into the night, to ponder, in the day’s final free hours, the difference between striving East and striving West.

You may also enjoy:

Measures of Success

Entrepreneurship: Why It’s Not about You

Soaring Success, Devastating Failure: A Samurai’s Story

8 Comments to What Purpose Work?

On Jun 11, 2009, John Bardos commented:

I agree that there is merit in the notion of serving others through work, but I don’t see that as the case in Japan anymore.

Most Japanese workers are not striving to improve the lives of those around them, they are just filling time with unproductive corporate drudgery.

It is common to find Japanese employees sleeping in cars on the side of the road, at movie theaters or pachinko parlors during the work hours. They are not “serving the public good.” They are just trying to keep their sanity in jobs that are tedious and often pointless.

Japanese white collar workers are notoriously unproductive. The Japanese focus on procedures and customs maybe good for making automobiles and electronics but it impedes creative work.

How many countries in the world have a word like karoshi- death by overwork? I think it is healthy that Japan is adopting more American ideas of work. Of course, I hope they don’t go too far, because Westerners tend to think they are all rock stars, but a partial shift will be beneficial.

I know a Japanese salary man that works for a large electronics company. He was forced to relocate to China and be away from his family for two years. Now he is coming back to Japan with a promotion. However, the company informed him that he will have to take a 30% wage cut and work 6 or 7 days a week, because of the bad economy. I don’t see his situation as serving the public good.

Anyone riding trains at night in Japan will see husbands returning home at 10 or 11 PM during weekdays and weekend work is also common. When do they see their children and wives? It don’t think those concepts of work are healthy for a society.

On Jun 11, 2009, Traveler commented:

“In the U.S., Kitao writes, work is about fulfilling one’s personal aspirations… The Eastern conception of work differs… In Japan, work traditionally meant striving in accordance with one’s destiny, dedicating oneself to serving the public good.”

I haven’t read Kitao’s book, but I trust he offers evidence for this claim? I would think it’s a tough claim to make, without insulting countless “Western” workers who are certainly striving and sacrificing on behalf of society: underpaid teachers, overworked medics, life-risking rescue workers, patriotic soldiers, altruistic clergy, visionary entrepreneurs, dedicated civil leaders, idealistic volunteers, on and on…

Perhaps Kitao is talking about some narrow section of businesspersons only?

On Jun 12, 2009, by Tim commented:

@ Traveler: Kitao is indeed talking primarily about “elite” businesspeople. Thanks for the strong counterpoint.

@ John: Kitao would largely agree with a number of your points (“in Japan, work traditionally meant…), and your observations about many aspects of work in Japan are spot on. Still, the collectivist orientation is clear in factors such as executive/average worker compensation differentials and union relations (as well as the ridiculous “overtime” put in by white collar workers waiting for their bosses to leave … ).

Many thanks for your thoughtful comments.

On Jun 14, 2009, Traveler commented:

@John: I think my own next blog post is going to have to be a debunking of the “single word for ‘death by overwork’ ” meme. Until then, the nutshell version:

I don’t know whether an unusually high number of people in Japan die from overwork; only the data will tell.

However, the single-word status of “karoshi” is linguistic happenstance with no special significance. “Death by…” in Japanese comes out as “shi” tacked on to the cause of death, and the result is always considered a single word. As examples, “death due to freezing” or “death due to burning” come out as single words, the same as karoshi. (Interestingly, English has a single word for “death due to suffocation in liquid”, but no one claims a special link between Englishmen and drowning.)

In short, the data may or may not point to an unusual karoshi problem in Japan, but the fact of a single-word label for the phenomenon has zero significance.

On Jun 14, 2009, John Bardos commented:


I think we may be straying a bit from the topic of the original post. However, it is an interesting point you brought up.

You are correct. The existence of the word “karoshi” doesn’t prove that it is a real phenomenon.

However, with recent court cases holding corporations liable for “karoshi”, I feel that this is not just a “single-word label.”

In your example, if the word “drowning” only occurred in England and no where else in the world, and it was in common enough usage, I would indeed claim that there was a link between Englishmen and drowning.

On the flip side, a society that doesn’t have a word for “plane crash” probably doesn’t have too many airplanes crashing.

However, I do concede to your argument.

Best regards,

On Jun 15, 2009, by Tim commented:

Guys, your gentlemanly discourse is as highly appreciated as your erudition. Thanks for a terrific discussion: May it continue on these pages and yours!

On Jun 18, 2009, Traveler commented:

@John: Certainly, the linguistic aspect is off-topic; it’s a complete tangent. But as long as it came up, passers-by might find it trivia of minor interest. And your passing mention got me to finally move the topic from my to-do list and into a short blog post – so thanks for the nudge!

One pedantic quibble: “You are correct. The existence of the word “karoshi” doesn’t prove that it is a real phenomenon.”

Well, that’s *almost* what I said. There’s no question of whether it’s a real phenomenon or not; people *do* drop dead of heart attacks after ridiculous amounts of work. No controversy there! And naturally, any language will have a word or words to refer to the happening.

I only point out that the use of a *single* word for such death in Japanese is not itself significant. This is in response to the common “OMG, Japanese has a single word for death by overwork!” meme, which does state or imply that this *single* word is evidence of unusual severity.

That’s all. Per my post’s final summary: “The fact that people are talking about death from overwork at all shows that, wherever it may happen, it’s a real issue. It may or may not be a particularly serious problem in Japan; I don’t have the comparative statistics to say. But for the record, the fact that the Japanese language refers to the phenomenon with a *single word* has *no* significance.”

On Feb 2, 2010, PaSS Police Oral Exam commented:

Great site, exactly what I was looking for, I can’t get your RSS feed to work right in google chrome though, is it on my end?

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