J-Dev Confidential 3

In this series of posts I examine, from the unique perspective of having experience and knowledge of both Western and Japanese development practices, where, in my humble opinion, Japanese game development is going wrong. Beware that these are merely generalised opinions and do not necessarily apply to all or any specific Japanese companies, some of which are, admittedly, slowly changing their approaches and attitudes.

Part 3 - Work ethic

One of the most persistent Great Lies of video game development is that overtime, unpaid naturally, is an unavoidable necessity. So ingrained is this fallacy that even non-management developers sometimes defend this position. The reasoning is fairly easily debunked, though, as it usually follows the line of "Game X took a lot of overtime to finish. Game X was a success. Therefore game X could not have been made without a lot of overtime". If "Game X" is a big hit it is sometimes even extrapolated to "successful games cannot be made without a lot of unpaid overtime". Only recently has this trend been brought to the limelight and is actually, in the US mostly, being addressed in baby steps. Japan is no different. I don't think I've ever had a job interview, neither here nor back home, where I wasn't posed the question "so, how do you feel about overtime?" And though the correct answer would be "You pay overtime? Great!", if you want the position you are pretty much forced to say "well, it's all part of the process, isn't it?"

On top of the usual crunch madness, Japan also suffers from the lingering remains of a more hierarchical past, where it was, and to an extent still somewhat is, bad form to be seen to leave work before your boss does. Though this rule is on its way out, it is still felt, possibly subconsciously, by the majority, who will refuse to leave work at a decent hour.

Now, your average Japanese is no idiot. With crunch and the unspoken rule of working late, they know for a fact they won't be coming home at a decent hour, so why kill yourself? Obviously, you come in as late as possible too, and spread your work out to fill a longer work day, rather than try to get more work done in more hours. The periods in between are filled with procrastination; reading, eating, chatting and even sleeping at your desk. Paradoxically, procrastinating at work is actually quite tiring, so in the end the sum total of this attitude leads to late starts to the day, not much actual work being done, leaving work late and still feeling increasingly tired as the days drag on.

This is in my humble opinion, by far, the single most destructive and inefficient, not to say unhealthy, both physically and economically, problem of the Japanese game development industry today! It also gives rise to the false image of the "great Japanese work ethic"; coming in late, staying late and not doing much work during the day is in fact a very bad work ethic. The people I worked with were in a perpetual state of drowsiness at all times.

I have always tried to set myself very strict working hours; I come in early, on the dot, every single day. If I'm tired I'll just drink more coffee and make a mental note to go to bed earlier that evening. As a result I also always make sure I leave at exactly the same time every evening. Sometimes, of course, if I'm close to finishing something I'll hang around a little longer, but only ever in fractions of an hour, not multiples. This, I have found, made me unique at the companies I've worked for. Also, by filling my days (mostly) with focused, hard work, rather than loafing around filling my time, I usually got the reputation of being an extremely fast worker, surprised, as my colleagues were, that I could finish a task that would take 1 hour in, well, 1 hour.

It was always a little painful to watch colleagues get more scruffy and tired and bug-prone as projects lingered on; coming in in the morning to a sight of sleeping bags and snoring (and nasty, sweaty funks). I'd get my coffee and start work. Hours later my colleagues would finally be roused and sleepily start their work, not being able to concentrate well, taking naps at their desks during the day. Then I'd leave on time, leaving them all behind to eat their instant ramen suppers to greet them in the exact same fashion the following morning. I honestly do not think I possess any amazing technical skills, so the fact I usually end up finishing my stuff quickest and with the least number of bugs at the end of the projects I've worked on would suggest my attitude was, in the end, much more constructive and productive, and at the very least, I kept my health and sanity in tact (arguably).

Now forcing unpaid overtime is actually illegal in Japan, but as with most laws, it's difficult for the government to actually make it stick. Every year however the labour standards committee sends out research parties to investigate larger companies' working practices and has a tradition of penalising a whole load of them for inevitably failing to adhere to the legal minimum standards. There are actually a few game development studios that have stricter working hours and some kind of overtime pay scale; you can bet you bottom dollar these were victim of the labour standards committee's random checks; that's the only way things seem to change for the better in these cases.

As a foreign employee in Japan my advice is to make sure you do your work on time and try to stick to contracted hours as much as possible, or you will work yourself to an early grave or mental institution. Also familiarise yourself with the labour standards law. The mere mention of these laws will make any employer back down from unreasonable demands. Though this will keep your health in check, it will make you opt out of the political game at work. For promotion you must still be seen to be a team player, which in turn means always staying late, no matter what the workload, the deadline, personal situations or how late you start your actual workday.

Soon, part 4, "decision making".


  1. Going by your first post, I assume you have brought up to management the fact that less work is actually being done, in clear and simple terms, only to receive a "this is Japan"-type response.

  2. Indeed. Management AND tired colleagues alike, sadly.

  3. One American developer said that he shifted his work hours on purpose in a conference in Tokyo last year, like from 9-17 to 13-21.

    I agree that it's maybe not very productive, and we have to adapt to a new lifestyle, but at least it will probably be able to make you leave later than your boss, and make you seen as a "team player", despite having the same number of working hours.

  4. I'm glad you brought this up as the second item (I'd rather it was the first, even, but this is your show). This is, in my experience, the single most self-destructive bit of the Japanese employment experience. That it's not the amount and quality of work that you produce but just the amount of time you spend scratching your ass at work. Thank you for describing it so vividly.

  5. Being familiar with your other blog posts I was waiting for this one to come up :). I agree this seems to be incredibly inefficient, and it did poke a hole in my generic 'Japanese Work Ethic' stereotype.

    Great series, I might just be enjoying this as much as the gamesmanship articles!

  6. I can only agree with this fantastic post.
    I work in a european company and I see the same that you described.
    It's really simple, when people have overtime, there is a moment that productivity starts to drop.

    I can not understand why company can force overtime, and in the same time they are ignoring people that, basically, don't work.
    At the end, this provoque a lot of extra work, because we are always late.

  7. I'm fortunate enough to work at a studio where pretty much no one stays past 6, 7 at latest on a normal day. I've gotten used to being home by 6 and anything else would be a step backwards. It's nice to know that there are companies in Europe that don't all subscribe to the overtime = awesome philosophy. Reading this post makes me realise how lucky I am...

    Keep the very informative posts coming JC, it should be mandatory reading for everyone who thinks Japan is the golden standard :)

  8. I visited a big-name Japanese developer a few years ago and found that people didn't come into the office until nearly lunchtime. Then they had a few hours rest, started real work in the mid afternoon and went on into the evening. It shone a light on the "work ethic" and helped explain why their games were always alte.

  9. Dang, lunch time to like, midnight? Ugh...

    Core hours at my company are set from 10am to 6pm which doesn't really give you a whole helluva lot of flexibility. I typically come in at 8:45-9am and kick out around 6 to 6:30.

    I've had to take a few long lunches for bank account/phone/etc set up so it ends up evening out.

    Things might get a bit crunchy for me soon, alas, though I don't work for an entirely Japanese company, HQ off across oceans has given the studio a mandate to double output when the company still isn't adiquately staffed.

    I guess I work in inaka-land after all. ;P

  10. Actually, I'm not much of a morning person. I may actually be more productive with a 13-21 schedule.
    Of course, that's probably not a viable option for married people.

  11. Interesting to hear! At the last UK company I was with (though admittedly it wasn't as bad as what you're describing...), the trend would also be to push arrival times towards 10-11ish in times of crunch. It's just such incredibly bad psychology, similar to my dad who gets up at five in the morning, and considers those who don't lazy. Well actually the reverse, so not really that similar ;)

  12. This isn't exactly confined to Japan - I've seen it in other asian countries as well when I was working there on software projects. There was no reward for getting your work done efficiently as it meant you would get more work. Facetime was the most important thing.

    In Taiwan - the staff would trickle in between 10 and 11, disappear for long pointless meetings, meals, snacks or smoking. It was hard to ever find people at their desks except for naptimes.

    Naptimes were a big deal with pillows on people's desk as they took their lunchtime naps. I'll never forget what the DBA looked like as he used to fall asleep in his chair, head thrown back and upwards, mouth hanging open snoring away with a little bit of drool trickling down.

    In India many would have been happy to come in early and leave early - however - due to an autocratic manager (fairly normal type at that company) - the staff had to go to late night (22 - 23)meetings as he didn't like to get in early.

    I've also seen it to a lesser degree in Australia - where mangement praises the late stayers without noticing that they are actually working fewer hours then the early arrivers, but somehow being at your desk at night is a sign of dedication rather then the many other alternatives.

  13. I was in a software company, but not a game one, and it was the same. People taking *loong* naps, and still 80% of the employess here past 8pm (and they arrived around 9am, some earlier). Still some good 40% past 10pm.
    I even told a co-worker to go home as there was no point of sleeping at his desk at 10pm…

    Yet, I did stay late, but I was paid by the hour :) (and did work as much as possible, since procrastination *is* tiring and mostly since my project was very fun and interesting)

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