Pajama party

I find that, on the whole, my Japanese colleagues are far too willing to spend the night at the office. Perhaps “willing” is not the right word; they are far too easily made to stay at the office overnight. Maybe they’re afraid of the boss, maybe they do have an undying loyalty to the company, maybe they are too proud, whatever the reasons, I firmly believe no good ever comes from this.

As I am always first in the office I am often greeted by the sight of colleagues sprawled over the uncomfortable sofas in the television area or slumped over their desks. In the course of the morning as I have started work I see them slowly wake up and groggily get their first coffee or brush their teeth. Maybe they’ll pop out for a quick breakfast or just sit there and yawn for a while, but it is at least 10 or 11 o’clock before they actually start work again. I have asked some until what time they were working and it is usually from between 2 to 5 o’clock at night. If deadlines are particularly desperate they may not get any sleep at all!

While at work I like to be clear headed and concentrate. I do have a reputation for working fast, but even still it is fairly obvious I can produce more in two 10 hour days, if I get a semi-good night’s sleep, than one continuous 30 hour day, let alone a few of these in a row. I downright refuse to ever work nights, mostly because it’s simply counter-productive. If I don’t have my head on a pillow for a few hours, a shower and a change of clothes I know my next working day will be wasted. I’ll make more mistakes, I’ll work slower and have less and less energy as the days go by. Luckily I have never been asked to stay overnight as refusal often offends. That isn’t to say I’ve never done it; when I got my first job in Japan and was still keen to impress I did it once or twice, but I soon phased that out. Best not let them think it is an acceptable and expectable standard.

I have often asked my colleagues, usually with in a pleading tone, why on Earth they stay overnight so often, or at all. The responses were varied. On more than one occasion the boss would organize a late meeting and rush off to catch his last train, not realizing some colleagues already had missed theirs. Or a last minute change forced them to work through the night to implement it. Or maybe a sense of pride made them work overnight just to deliver the best they can. And though commuting times can be a bit long in Tokyo, a few colleagues had such lengthy trips, well over two hours each way on some occasions, that staying overnight was simply the easiest thing to do.

The latter I can somewhat understand and unsurprisingly these colleagues were all single males. But you’ll also see fathers, family men and newlyweds staying overnight and not seeing their young offspring for a few days on end. My refusal to understand that, as well as my repeated warnings and concerns over the physical and mental health of my colleagues has earned me the role of “company father” in more than one company. “Go home already,” I plead. “Ah, JC, I wish you were my boss.” “But don’t you have kids? Didn’t you already work a 20 hour day the day before? You should really go home and get some sleep. Damn the deadline! Think of your health!” And they always laugh politely and agree, but they never act. “This just reinforced bad planning and bad decision making!” “You’re right. But the work has to be done.”

Very few companies discourage this behaviour. Some do, to their credit, but mostly it is seen as au fait, de rigeur. Often employees bring in their own bedrolls or sleeping bags and keep them under the desk, which is also where they sometimes spend the night. Sometimes companies provide a nearby apartment with a few beds in it. If you work at a very old-fashioned corporation there may even be a stinking, flea-ridden tatami room in the building for general use. If your building has regulated heating expect summer nights to be hot and sweaty and winter nights to be freezing cold. This hardly sends the message people should look after their health and try to work company hours only, does it?

If you carry yourself correctly and do your work there is no reason you, as a foreign employee, should join in this tradition. Some people may even follow your example, if you’re lucky. But all in all this seems to be a fact of Japanese development that will take a long time to be stamped out. Get used to coming in in the mornings to an office filled with stale air and sleeping bodies strewn across the floor. Watch in horror as your colleagues become zombies that need regular naps during the day to survive another 12 hours. You’ll have to develop a thick skin and not be swayed by the plight of your colleagues; too much empathy and you’ll be spending nights too, just to be a “team player”. Even in work we all make our own decisions and though I feel for them I will not compromise my own health and productivity for the sake of fitting in, not when it concerns such destructive behaviour as this.

In conclusion, though the attitude is more must-do than can-do, I have the deepest respect for my colleagues’ sense of duty; if something absolutely needs to be done every effort will be made, uncomplainingly, to try and get it done, to the detriment of personal health and, sadly, long-term productivity. In an ideal world we’d see a happy medium: the work-hard, no bitching attitude of the Japanese with the protection and enforcement of working conditions that western law has been making great strides in.


  1. What I really find interesting is that I'm the only white person at a small company in California, the rest are Chinese and Japanese, and everyone else but me has the exact same attitude. A few times a week I come in to work and someone's asleep on the couch, or I happen to log onto IM at 3am since I can't sleep and they're *all* still there.

    Makes me wonder if it's some deep-seated cultural thing, but I just am not going to stay over for the sake of the fact that other people do.

  2. Hehe, this phenomenon really does permeate all corners of the Japanese workplace... Walked into work this morning and found the chef asleep on the sofa in the back, rising as if undead with a towel over his head, grunting a "bonjeur monsieur" in broken french as he lit a cigarette and headed for the nearest sink to brush his teeth :)

  3. hehe this was funny to read when this morning i was greeted by 4-5 people sleeping in my office-room (because for some reason, all beds are there, probably because you can get some privacy in there) But yeah, I refuse to sleep overnight. Its so much better to go home, even if you have to go to sleep immidiately. It never really feels like you went to bed if you sleep at the office imo.

  4. Well I worked in video games in California and it was like that here.

    That sort of exploitation (usually slightly more subtle here, but just) is why I refuse to be an employee anymore.

  5. I worked at one game company that had a bunkroom, people sleeping under the desks, and complaints of company caused divorces - all in Carlsbad California.

  6. Ironically most of the staff jumped ship to Sony.

  7. I just talked to someone who said he read an article claiming that Japan no longer leads the world in hours worked per employee. America just passed Japan.

    He also said that American workers take less vacation time. They're granted more vacation time, but apparently, we're too afraid to actually take it.

  8. Hey man, you should come work over here! Working conditions are much better by the sound of it! :)

  9. I just posted twice, and each time, it just returned me to this page with my post still in the entry box.

    So my post may show up multiple times. I apologize if it does.

    Anyway I知 trying again, using my blogger login this time.

    While I no longer want to be a game programmer, there is one thing about game development in Japan that interests me.

    I like Japanese games (and other Japanese entertainment like anime), and I want to know how it is that Japanese companies avoid the horrors of incompetence, nepotism, ego, cheapness, contempt for the audience and generally bad management that dooms many American companies to turn out crap. Where does aesthetic excellence, and (often) intelligent design that seems to respect it's audience come from?

  10. Blogger has been acting up of late.

    "how it is that Japanese companies avoid the horrors of incompetence, nepotism, ego, cheapness, contempt for the audience and generally bad management that dooms many American companies to turn out crap."

    They don't.

    "Where does aesthetic excellence, and (often) intelligent design that seems to respect it's audience come from?"

    I don't know - I haven't seen any yet.

    Okay, that sounds a little too bitter, but what I mean to say is that if you really expect development here to be vastly different than in the West you're barking up the wrong tree. All the same problems exist here. There are great companies that do things right, but they also exist in the west.

  11. *gasp* I also prefer to concentrate my job within working hours but a bit of overtime is fine. I think sleep is important and I hope the situation changes for the japanese companies because I hope to one day work in Japan too >_<.
    In Singapore it used to be common for overnights, but now is getting better or at least my friends who are working now seem to be leading better lives now.