The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

There are specific work rhythms for Japan. Spring is hopeless because of kafunsho (allergies) killing our concentration. May is no good because of gogatusbyo (May miasma). Everyone is adjusting to the start of the new financial year in April and many are struggling with their new environments and situations.

Also, after the Golden Week break, people are exhausted from the crowded travel and from all the family activities which take place during that time. Summer is also bad because the heat makes us feel natsubate (drowsy).

Of course we also have tsuyubyo (summer sickness) thanks to the endless rain, high humidity, and associated joint pain. The Obon season is no better: you have to travel back to your hometown to worship at the ancestors’ graves, the roads are clogged, and the railways packed.

Recently, we have added a new one—akibate (fall drowsiness)—to our woes. Subsequently, the long, dark days of winter can be seriously depressing and the bitter cold seeps into your bones, tiring you out every day.

There are also the rhythms of the day. We need to stay up really late watching mindless television or fixated on our device’s screen.

We have to get insufficient sleep, drag ourselves out of bed at the last moment, and rush around in a panic to make the last possible train to get us to work on time. In Japan, 92 percent of people start work after 8.00am, so rush-hour trains are incredibly packed, hence the torturous and exhausting commute.

We also tend to stay at work until really late, waiting for the boss to leave, or go out drinking with work colleagues. In the latter case, we stagger home and add to the excitement of re-enacting yesterday but now with a hangover.

The afternoon is hard slog because we are so sleepy after lunch. Japanese do work long hours and 16 percent of workers here never take a day off. Of those working sixty hours a week or more, 27 percent never take any days off.

It is hard to be an idea genius when you are tired every single day of your work life. Innovation rarely surfaces amongst the exhausted. Yet we expect results, innovation, creativity, high work productivity, and happy staff.

How many foreign bosses adjust their high-powered expectations and allow for the different rhythms here? Probably zero. In a globally connected 24/7 world, there is no tolerance for differences in rhythms.

So, like our predecessors over the past 200 years, we try and “hustle the East.” We meet with pretty much the same degree of success, too—basically, none!

Rather than hustle the East, why don’t we just make some simple alterations to our work style and introduce a different work culture. Do you have strict policies on working overtime?

In many companies it is just worked, whether it is needed or not, because that is how you improve your monthly take-home pay situation. Pre-approval systems for working overtime control long hours pretty effectively.

What about having more flexible work hours so that more can start earlier or later and miss the crush during peak times? Typical Japanese company rulebooks say everyone has to take lunch between noon and 1.00pm. Why? Change that, and we can all get into our favorite restaurants more easily.

Get the company seniors to take some ownership of the culture change and have them leave work much earlier. The mantra must be productivity is valued above blunt loyalty, simply demonstrated through working long hours.

Encourage the team to take (shock, horror), two or three weeks leave in a row, so they can get some well-deserved rest and refresh themselves.

Counsel the team about the importance of getting enough sleep, to rest before they get tired, and to take breaks at work, so that they are fresher and, therefore, less likely to make mistakes through tiredness. Remind them that the fresher team will beat the tired team, and so let’s change the dynamic at work and win.