Overtime, schmovertime

Stories about Japan’s “work ethic” are as legendary as they are, sadly, true. Late hours and weekends are extremely common, very much to the detriment of productivity and health. It doesn’t quite matter how late you turn up for work, but if you leave before the witching hour people will tut and glare askance. If Friday afternoon you get an email saying weekend work is required, mandatory, whether your own work schedule needs it or not, and regardless of any plans you may have made, you will show up. There are ways around this, but they require determination and some amount of gamesmanship. Foreigners wanting to work in Japan can try this tried and tested method and be part of the solution rather than exacerbate the problem that blind adherence to the Way Things Are Done Round Here seems to bring about.

Valuable working experience
A good working attitude (during working hours)
A friendly and helpful manner
A disarmingly witty way of pointing out other people’s mistakes
A continuous repeated reassertion of how things are done “back home”
Foreign mettle

Step 1:
Do as the Romans. When you first start your job you’ll be under a probationary contract. At this time you have little choice but to do as your colleagues. Work late, but maybe not hard, and if that is difficult for you, just come in late in the mornings. The important part is to be seen to be at the office until late and make sure you do your work properly. Wow them with how efficiently and quickly you get things done, simply by not sleeping at your desk during the day or wasting time reading manga.

Step 2
Settle. Once you pass your probationary period it will be much harder for them to get rid of you, especially if you manage to get a seishain full-time contract. Now the game begins.

Step 3
Train your colleagues. Start coming in earlier and earlier over the course of a few weeks. At the same time leave a little earlier and earlier too. The important thing is to always be at your desk when people start coming into work. You want the reputation of always being the first in. Make sure that during coffee or cigarette breaks you slip into the conversation how early you arrived. As there is never anybody there to check the truth of your claims you may exaggerate a little, but don’t push it. Any time before 9 a.m. is enough to blow the mind of most Japanese developers.

Step 4
Make sure your work is always done on time and to spec, such as there is. It’s much easier to get away with leaving “early” (meaning “on time” but earlier than anyone else) if your work for the day is done and dusted. Avoid having your work approved before you leave though, because there is no such thing as approval. Any time you show your work there will be change requests, whether justified or not. And any change request will have to be implemented NOW, regardless whether that particular task still has several months on the calendar. If a producer or director asks you to change something the implied timeline for that request is always “right now, before you even dare going home”. So check in your work, send an email to your lead and skedaddle. Alternatively, switch off, put on your coat, sling you bag over your shoulder and on your way out tell your lead the work is checked in. Never stay around long enough for feedback!

Step 5
Start making timekeeping an issue. Make sure you have plans after work, real or imagined; Japanese classes are a good one they can’t ignore. Whenever it looks like overtime is going to be creeping up on you, mention your plans. “Oh, I have to leave at 6.30 tonight, I have Japanese classes.” You are leaving “early” not because you’re foreign and lazy but because you have a life outside of work. Trust me, the assumption is you won’t have, so you have to make sure to let them know you actually do. When you’re in a meeting or being talked to by a director and leaving time is approaching, start getting fidgety, look at your watch or the wall clock obviously and nervously. When they get the hint and let you go, rush out as if it’s going out of fashion. They’ll start feeling conscious about having kept you up and hopefully even a little guilty.

Step 6
Make overtime the exception. Whenever you stay later than usual, make sure people know it’s a rare case. Over coffee sigh deeply, look at your watch and say something like “Oh, it’s already 7 p.m. Heh, late!

Step 7
During this time it is vitally important that you’re a valued colleague. During the day always be courteous and friendly with your leads and colleagues. Always jump to the task at hand and do it properly and on time. Make sure they feel they can ask you to do anything and you’ll happily comply, just don’t ask late in the day. However, and this is the difficult part, while keeping this charming and approachable attitude, be sure to make a point of avoiding blame for mistakes. If a planner drastically changes spec or a director demands some arbitrary change that triples he workload without altering the schedule, you need to communicate you’ll do you best, but if that is what they want, and if they are sure, you can implement their changes, just not tonight. If asked why a particular task hasn’t been finished yet, apologise and say it was but their changes required a lot of reworking. Never blame people outright but always imply these kinds of things are their doing, not yours.

Step 8
Become uppity. Once you’ve established you’re a punctilious and punctual worker, driven yet strict, and a value to your company, you can let slip the Westerner. The idea of work-for-hire is still a little strange in Japan, where they favour the parchment signed in blood. Take contract issues extremely seriously. Unlike Japanese employers, don’t just sign whatever or agree to things you don’t fully understand. Ask for explanations, changes, let them know you are under contract with them and that this is a business arrangement. Once they know how seriously you take these matters, you can often get away from arbitrary overtime by simply reiterating contractual agreements. “Nah, I’m not staying late. My work doesn’t require it and my contract states I work for 8 hours a day.” Authority is scary to many Japanese, and with a reputation for strict contractual adherence they’ll often allow you to get away with this.

This technique will take some time, several months usually, but it does work as I’ve used it successfully several times. It certainly helped there weren’t many foreigners at the places I’ve worked and that I could play this game with the “weird foreigner” card, though as there is strength in numbers, the more people refuse arbitrary overtime the better and fellow foreigners are most likely to agree with your attitudes. That said, being the living example of how things can be done differently I did find several of my more daring colleagues following in my footsteps, which was immensely gratifying.

Another danger is that if your director doesn’t like you much you can be passed over for promotion or pay rises. Quality of your work isn’t as important as being seen to stay late. This is why it is so important to be likable and helpful during work hours, and to occasionally get drunk with your colleagues. You are not a bastard except when it comes to timekeeping. That said, I have enjoyed pay rises and a decent promotion within one company despite refusing to do any overtime whatsoever, so it can be done as long as your work is good enough. Sadly, you do actually need to work hard and be good at what you do; simply wanting to avoid work at all isn’t going to cut it.

Alternatively, anonymously contact the Labour Standards Office and have the weight of Japanese law fine your company and force a rigid working hours system.


  1. Brilliant! I'm sure this is wisdom that would take years to culminate and perfect, so I'm overwhelmingly happy to find it — I feel a lot better that if my job hunt works out, I'll be able to avoid having the job itself become a living hell.

    You mention the "Labour Standards Office" so cursorily that I feel a bit baffled. Could you expound? If such a thing exists and would actually fix the problem, there must be some compelling reason it is not being used... by apparently 99% of folks.

  2. Very well executed entry! I exercised this sort of thing in the US as well, with varying degrees of success. There are some jobs where it's practically impossible(QA Tester at a publisher) and more feasible in others(development.)

    I do what I can to get as much "Murphy Time" in the schedule to allow for the idiocracy that development has been known to show.

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  5. Brilliant arcticle.
    Really love some parts because they are so true, like the part wow them with efficiency by not sleeping and reading manga during work. It really baffles me on how not doing work, (sleeping mostly) in the 8hr time frame where you should've been doing your work but doing lots of overtime until midnight makes someone a good employee(refering to my sempai at work). If I were the boss I'd bitchslap them before firing them. And they give me the look because I leave on time even after I've finish the job they gave me 2 weeks early.

    I just got my seishain contract in a game company here in Nakano as programmer, and its a living hell. hahaha
    Japanese inefficiency really baffles me. They work hard, they really do, usually 10+ hours a day(for fun maybe?) but the work they do, worth like 4 hours or a normal non-japanese person would do.

    I'm starting to rant here, sorry about that. Just wanted to say, love the article. I wonder if it would work in my case.

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