The Great Japanese Overtime Swindle

It is often commented that the Japanese are hard and diligent workers. After a few years of experience working with Japanese colleagues I can tell you that this is categorically untrue.
It is not that they are lazy or bad workers; don't get me wrong! But the story is a little more complicated than that.

One of the unwritten rules of work in Japan is that no matter how late you come into the office one must stay late in the evening; preferably not leaving before the boss does. So most Japanese employees have resigned themselves to the fact they are working 10, 12 or 14 hour days, if not longer.
Now, the Japanese are no fools! If you spend that long working hard you'll grind yourself to the bone in no time. So what happens is that they carefully spread their tasks over that period rather than keep up a pace. I often spy my colleagues reading manga or magazines, having a long and pointless chat, browsing the internet or even taking naps at their desks! But they stay late. Very late, on occasion.

As a foreigner on a seishain contract I have successfully trained a few employers to accept the fact come in early, hours before anyone else, but also leave "early", or rather, at a normal hour. It's a slow process; like weaning a child off the bottle I slowly start leaving earlier and earlier, at all times making sure my tasks were done and everybody was aware of how early I got in in the mornings. I was so successful with this that at one company people were asking me why I was staying late, at 6.30 pm., and art and design meetings weren't scheduled to start after 5 p.m. anymore.
In that time I did as much work as my colleagues did in a 14 hour day or longer. I was just more focused during work hours and did my work then, rather than procrastinate. The upshot of this is that I am enjoying a reputation for being a very fast worker.

In one memorable crunch I worked extra hard during the day but still managed to get home at reasonable hours. Coming in in the morning I found, usually, my entire team sleeping at their desks. I'd start work, they would slowly wake up, loaf around, make coffee, have chats, doze a little more, start thinking about starting work. By midday some of them would actually have started doing some work, sometimes interposed with the occasional nap again or a two hour lunch to "recuperate". I'd leave at a normal time and they would stay the night again. This pattern went on for a few weeks.
The game got finished, my work was in good order and on time. I had a life outside work and a healthy rhythm. They were all knackered but got a few holiday days in compensation.
Now who's the fool? That is a hard question to answer, actually.

So, sure, the Japanese work diligently. Their work isn't bad (though the game industry has its fair share on no-hopers), they make sure things are done on time, but in the end I do the same amount of work in a 9 hour workday as they do in a 14 hour one; except, they are more tired every day and in the end it affects their work and health

So what, as a foreigner, can you do? To be honest, not much to begin with. Without the safety of a good reputation and preferably a seishain contract you may be forced into the same unhealthy rhythm as your colleagues. And at first this is probably what you should do. It shows you are not a trouble maker and can do it "the Japanese way". Once you've established yourself as reliable and/or talented you could start to slowly adjust your hours. If you do that from the outset you run the risk of being seen as "difficult". On the other hand, your employer may also see what he can expect from you when it comes to working hours. It is a bit of a gamble at this stage.
Obviously working these mad hours is possible if you're young, single and eager, but whatever you do don't work at full steam! It is simply untenable. Adjust your work speed to that of your colleagues.
And in the end, even if you adjust your hours don't expect to get it down to a regular 9 to 5. I am quite happy with the hours I've set for myself but I still find I work longer than I did back home.

It'll be a while before all this changes, but I think, in the end, it must. Some of my colleagues are slowly following my example, which is encouraging. To bridge this cultural gap takes a bit of compromise from both sides, but Japan could do with an EA_spouse of its own to hurry things along.


  1. I am working as a 3d animator for TV spots here in Tokyo and this morning stuggling with the overtime issue. i asked my boss to shift my hours and he agreed so that i come in early and leave earlier, but I am getting the dirty looks. The good side is he always comments how fast I am. I related totally to what you wrote and I think like you, i will commit to working more than in the US, but less than my slower counterparts...

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  3. Hi!

    I am a 3Dgeneralist in Tokyo,we are ery busy and when you talk about CG, is "normal" that you have to work oertime, anyway when I can, I go home after 8 hours :)