PS Cast: Work Ethic

Today I talk about Japan’s Work Ethic compared to the one in the US.

[Terrible Musical Intro]

Welcome to a rainy day Paul Spooner Podcast.

So I was thinking about the way that people have… [musical intro continues] Hmm, I may have to continue this another time.

So I’ve been considering how people in Japan have a different attitude toward work than people in America. (When I say “America” I mean the United States of America, but it’s easier to just say “America”, maybe I should just say “The US”) They have a different attitude toward work… not necessarily a better one, and I think that it’s easy to be like “Ohh, the Japanese have a BETTER attitude!” It’s better in ways, but it’s also worse in ways.

The Japanese work harder, and they are more interested in expending energy on their work they’re… not necessarily enthusiastic… but they don’t do work grudgingly. They never do anything grudgingly. Or, at least, they’re not seen to feel grudgingly about it. Probably they do feel the same way, but they hide their feelings like, “You know what, I’m going to do this work. It’s important. Either I, or someone else, has decided that it’s important, so I’m going to do it. And I’m going to do it with all the energy I can muster.” Sometimes it’s not a lot of energy, and I’ll get to that in the drawbacks.

For example, there’s a bunch of road construction going on right now and so every day I drive past theses flag-men who are standing on the side of the road. It’s their job to just stand there with the flag. I’m not sure why they need to be there. There’s already cones out, so maybe they’re there to stop traffic so that trucks can pull in or out of the construction area? But these guys are paying attention to traffic. They’re standing in a… Not really at attention… Some of them are standing with their feet wide apart like they’re about to go into some sort of cheer-leading demonstration! But they have style to the way that they’re standing!

In the US, a lot of the time when I see road construction, it’s an incredibly slovenly… The people who are working on the road have an incredibly… (and I love that word, “slovenly” It just has that, it sounds like, it sounds perfect! “Slovenly”! Anyway…) They have a very slovenly presentation. They’re not energetic, they’re not interested in their work, and you can tell! They’re giving off this air that they deserve better than this, but, you know, this is all they could get.

And in Japan I have never seen that attitude. It’s always been “I’m doing this job, and it’s important, and, I am happy to have a job, and I’m excited to do it.” Or if not “excited” then at least competent, and alert, and interested in doing a good job. Probably the lowest paid people anywhere in Japan are the convenience store cashiers. They just stand there all day and they’ve got very low ticket items. They can’t be paid much! I can’t imagine they’re paid very much. But never have I seen them scowl at me, or be impolite. They’re always very polite. They’re always very competent. They’re quick, they’re helpful… They’re not always smiling ear to ear.

Some of them are, but they’re not always, and, you know, I would expect, in America, there to be almost offensively bregrudging behavior from a register worker of that nature. You know, and they stock the store. Whenever you come into the store they greet you, maybe not perfectly cheerfully, but they greet you. It’s one of these things where it feels like they are not sad to be working there. I feel like, a lot of times in the US, people give off this air that they’re sad to have a job working whatever it is they’re doing.

Even at my work! (Editor’s Note: I’m talking about Electroimpact, back in the United States, not the office here in Japan) Where we’ve got great benefits, a great job, we’re doing amazing things with robots and machines and really neat stuff! And even there, at the office, a lot of times there’ll be people like “Ohhh, man… It’s… gotta come into the office… again! This just sucks.” and it’s like, “What? How can you? [laughs] wha, you, you’re. You’re getting paid to do awesome things! How can you be like that?”

So I really appreciate about the Japanese that they have this attitude toward work. They have a good attitude about it. Not always a fantastic attitude, but never a bad attitude. I’ve never seen someone have a bad attitude toward working.

But on the flip side, I did say the Japanese work harder, but they… You know, there’s that old (it’s an old phrase now, it used to be a pop management phrase or whatever) phrase, “Work smarter, not harder.” The Japanese are not necessarily interested (in general (as far as I can tell)) in working smarter. They will work their ass off at just a stupid task that doesn’t need to be done just because they’re like, “Alright, I gotta work hard!” And I think this is wasteful. Their society, I think, kind of rewards this behavior because the idea is that you should work hard at whatever it is you’re doing (which is a good idea). But this means that if you don’t have something to do, you can’t relax. Like, relaxing on the job is not okay! I think that that’s unhealthy. A lot of times I’ve seen Japanese people just wearing themselves out doing stuff that doesn’t need to be done. I’m sure that it results in worse performance overall, for hours worked, than in other countries.

Like, in the US, for example. In the US, if someone’s doing something, it’s almost always actually important because they have such a bad attitude toward work, they’re like, “Aww, I don’t want to do anything!” and so if they end up doing something, it’s like “Well, I guess I really need to do this, or you know, I’m going to loose my job, or I’m gonna cause this terrible accident or something.” And that attitude isn’t good either! I would love to be in a society (somewhere, and tell me if there’s one around, but I don’t know of any) where people have a good attitude toward work, and also aren’t workaholics, they don’t just keep on working for no reason.

People will (and I don’t know if this is absolutely true, but even at the office where I’m at, here in Japan. I have an office mate, and he will) stay really late. And I think it’s just because I’m there, and he wants to be like, “Alright, we’re working together, this is camaraderie.” Which can be good. But it can also be like, “Well, if you don’t have anything to do, why don’t you just go home and relax?” And I think its part of their culture that they can’t do that. They have to be working if someone else is working. They have to be working together. It’s this team effort, this social… their social structure depends on everyone working hard. This results in people working hard, but also it results in a lot of inefficiency, because they don’t implement things that could save work. It’s like, “Well… why would we save work? We’re just going to work at something else. So we may as well just not save the effort and keep doing it the old way, or keep doing it the way that we’re used to.”

Saving work, saving effort, increasing efficiency, is not really a top priority, and I think that that’s unhealthy just because it’s going to result in you wearing out your populace. It’s going to result in you wearing out your workers for no benefit. If it’s inefficient, you’re wasting energy, and that means wasting people’s lives! I’m not okay with that, and I hope no one is.

I think the Japanese work ethic is interesting! I love their attitude. I kind of despise their flippancy toward efficiency and… Because there’s all this effort on the part of making everything perfect, when sometimes it just doesn’t need to be perfect. It feels like increasing efficiency sometimes, where you’re increasing through-put, or you’re expecting more out of people. But there comes a break-even point where you’re expecting too much, and you’re expecting people to do things that aren’t in the best interests of everyone. Which is what inefficiency is! If you’re doing a job that doesn’t need to be done, if you’re working at something that isn’t important, that no one appreciates, that isn’t producing something useful or beautiful, then it’s wasted! It’s wasted effort, and I feel like the Japanese culture encourages this kind of waste to a great extent.

But it seems to work okay! Life goes on, and it’s worked for them for a long, long time… so it’ll probably continue to work alright… although their culture is kind of imploding on itself through a combination of excluding outsiders, where they don’t want immigrants, but everyone’s focusing so hard on working that they don’t have time for family or friends or relationships, or things like this. It’s resulting in low birth rates… I think it’s going to implode on itself eventually.

And of course, it’s not going to be like, the Japanese are all going to die off and there’s going to be one last Japanese person who’s like, “Well, I don’t have any more Japanese people, so I guess I’m the last of my kind!” I don’t think that’s going to happen.

What’s going to happen (I predict) is that all the people who are interested in fulfilling the Japanese norm will work so hard that they won’t have any children and those people will die off and the Japanese people who are like, “You know what? Um… I’m going to… I’m gonna relax a little bit! I’m gonna toss some of these ideas about throwing efficiency to the wind and working as hard as I can… Because life is about more than working! There’s life outside my job!” Those people are going to have families, and they’re going to make relationships with other people, and they’re going to thrive, and they’re going to reproduce, and there’s going to be more of them in twenty years than there are of the people who are working super hard.

So, I think it’ll self-correct in another fifty years or so, and we’ll see a Japanese culture that isn’t quite so ritualistic and quite so workaholic and quite so super-focused on details… And maybe has a worse attitude toward work? I don’t know! I really hope they maintain their good attitude in the workplace while getting rid of these other factors. And they will get rid of the other factors, just for the very simple reasons that I outlined. The people who are not wearing themselves out doing unnecessary things are going to, in the long run, reproduce more than the people who are wearing themselves out. In a hundred years, the people who wore themselves out won’t have any descendants, and the people who didn’t will. So those will be the Japanese people that the people in a hundred years will know about and maybe it will be very different from the Japan that we know of today!

I also think that the United States is going to go through this same thing where the sub-cultures that fail to reproduce are going to die off. I mean, they’re just… They’re just going to! Because the people who are interested in having families and raising families are just going to out-produce the people who aren’t. People are kind of concerned about, you know, “What’s America Coming To?” Ehh, don’t worry about it. It’ll straighten itself out.

Hopefully, we will maintain this hyper-efficiency-focus. Because I think a lot of times in The States, there is this focus on efficiency, which I think is very helpful. The overall efficiency where it’s like, “People don’t want to do work, so let’s just do as little work as possible.”

But hopefully, the people who know how to do as little work as possible while still getting the job done and have a good attitude about it will out-produce the people who are slovenly and begrudging at their labor. Hopefully that’ll be the case, I don’t know, we’ll have to see. I’m really hoping that the United States will improve over time as these kind of subcultures that are self defeating weed themselves out of the gene pool, well, and the social pool as well, it’s not all about genes, but weed themselves out of the philosophical debate and we end up with more people who are interested in having families, in training their children well, and having good attitudes about things.

So that kind of drifted into political territory (Editor’s Note: Not that discussing national work ethic can ever be anything but political). Sorry if that was a little bit strange for anyone, but I thought it was appropriate. And really, I shouldn’t be appologizing. If you’re listening to my podcast, you already know about my crazy views, so enjoy!

I’ve been Paul Spooner! There is no beeper right now because I am not backing into my parking space. I am, in fact, still on my way to work but I’ve run out of things to say. This has been the Paul Spooner podcast!

Allow me to play you out.

[Musical outro which (just like life) is composed of ambient elements in an unlikely configuration, betrays more promise than it delivers on, and is over all too quickly.]

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