Owning the bragging rights to work addiction


The Japanese were once famed for their work ethic. Now, shigoto-chudoku (workaholism) has been franchised out to the rest of the world and become a fact of globalized life.

The more we hear about fellow work addicts scattered around the globe, the more we’re spurred on to work harder ourselves, if only to prove that we’re the original hataraki-bachi (worker bees), that dedicated army of suited soldiers marching among office buildings, staring at laptop screens and mumbling “Kocchi ga sakidakara (We were here first)!”

For many Japanese, it’s less about money than about faith, belief and shukan (habit). Shigoto (work) is a drug as well as a religion, the first and final destination for our wandering souls.

The word itself is comprised of the kanji characters shi (to serve) and koto (cause) — put the two together and you can see how in this country, work is a concept that goes beyond just work.

In the past decade, shigoto fever has reached unprecedented levels; a survey conducted by the employment agency Recruit showed that in 2004, the average hours of overtime per month for Tokyo office workers between 30 and 45 years old hit the 110 mark. And it’s still climbing, apparently.

Accelerated work mode

Part of it has to do with the emergence of the cell phone as best friend and business partner. People are now free to send work-related text messages on the road, inside elevators, over meals and in bed.

Nor does overwork carry any stigma — hard workers are respected, and if they break down, they’re admired for that, too.

Accordingly, lifestyles have shifted to accommodate this new and accelerated work mode. Even Princess Norinomiya conducted much of her relationship with her fiance over e-mail until the day of the wedding. Couples communicate over cell-phone screens rather than in person, always a difficulty when both are in jobs.

Men and women both keep overnight amenities in their desk drawers and stock up at the convenience store when the toothpaste runs low. In smaller-size companies, workers will keep sleeping bags handy and pull 33-hour shifts, going home only to shower and check phone messages before boarding a train and going right back to the office.

Manufacturers are coming out with packets of kamisekken (disposable paper soaps) and shampoos that need no rinsing, mouthwash that also cleans your teeth, inflatable pillows and thermal blankets that one can fold into tiny squares and stow in a briefcase.

The habit of going out on weekends is increasingly rare among the fatigued Tokyo work addict. The answer to the question, “Shumatsu nani shiteru (What do you do on weekends)?” is usually “Neteru (Sleeping)” or “Sentaku to soji to atowa neteru (Doing the laundry, cleaning up and then sleeping).” If it even comes to that.

A friend of mine (graphic designer, 34) is so busy during the week that on Sundays all she does is lie around on the futon, swallowing wine from the bottle and eating convenience store snacks.

Fungus-like substance

Last week, she found a fungus-like substance growing around her futon, in the manner of forest mushrooms surrounding a tree.

Her boyfriend (architect, 34, never sleeps before 4 a.m.) kept having to buy his underwear at various convenience stores because he couldn’t find time to do the laundry. The other day, an avalanche of socks and T-shirts came crashing down as he slept, nearly suffocating him. “Deto yoriwa neteitai (I’d rather sleep than date)” is what they both say, and though they’d both love to invite the other over for dinner, neither can find the time for a cleanup.

All this is not surprising when you consider that Edo (Old Tokyo) was built and designed to accommodate the hardworking single person.

Noodle stalls and shops 300 years ago were open late into the night to serve those working the graveyard shifts; toothbrush vendors went from door to door; and since no one could find the time or the means to get married, brothels were situated on every main intersection. Workers hardly ever had time off and when they did, they went to the sento (public bathhouse), had a bite to eat and then returned home to sleep. Little has changed.