My love-hate relationship with Japan

Despite my better judgment I am seriously considering moving back to Japan – at least for a period of some years – to work and spend time with my family in law. My challenge is that I am basically at odds with the traditional view of what constitutes a good honorable person in Japan and by moving back there I therefore run the risk of being seen as utterly corrupt – again. Being a gaijin you are afforded some extra leeway but only so much. This applies both to work-life and to private life.

Japan’s corporate sector is famous for its screwed-up relation to work-life balance. Expect 14 hour work days followed by heavy compulsory drinking with the boss until the last train finally gives you an excuse to stagger home. And then up a 5:30 the next morning to be at the office before the boss and show that extra commitment, which tells him: I am a true sarari-man. (More pictures here). The last train in Tokyo runs already at 11:30 PM because no one is interested in postponing their main argument for finally going home from work.

If you want an insider’s account of how life is working in one of the prestigious Japanese ministries, I recommend reading the book “Straitjacket Society” by Masao Miyamoto . Read a review here.

Fuck that – is my less than constructive reaction to life as a corporate slave. Or any other kind of slave for that matter.  Being married to a Japanese woman I get to meet plenty of Japanese here in Copenhagen. A fair number of them have either come here as effective refugees from Japanese corporate life or are looking for ways to avoid going back there now that they have experienced something different.

Sometimes they ask me questions like: ‘So, you like your country huh? You want to stay and work here?’ When I say ‘yes’ they go ‘ah… naruhodo’ (Jap: Oh, I see. (Expressing a realization that something is so)) and then ponder the existence of a person actually liking his own country.

It is not even like the Japanese working hours yield proportionally to other places. Working hours are – like so many other things in life – subject to the rule of diminishing returns. GDP per capita is actually lower in Japan than it is in Denmark. Some years back I saw a global study of contribution to GDP per man-hour in countries around the world. Japan came in second-to-last, only outdone in inefficiency by South Korea. It was a free preview so I did not see anything about Denmark. France was number one while the US that year had dropped back to a close second.

Working twice as long hours does not make you produce twice as much. Strangely, this is actually something that I think is less than relevant to the Japanese work ethic. In Japan truth is in appearance – not in essence or effect. It is the presentation of correct form and commitment more than the production of any actual result that is important. This applies both at work and at home.

Some years back while staying a year in Japan in a home-stay type of situation, I was basically in non-stop confrontation with the parents the entire year over issues centered around ‘form’ and ‘show of commitment’. Somehow they failed to appreciate my arguably laid back way of attending language school and insisted that I act the same as how their son had been made to act when he grew up. I was 27-28 at the time and in no mood to accept the role of a child.

Both the parents were apparently unable to keep their blood pressure down when seeing me behaving so utterly useless. In time the two parents effectively gave up on me and moved to a second apartment that they also owned. Before that, the mother would sometimes out of frustration fake a straight punch to my face, stopping her fist just an inch before actually hitting me. She would then proudly tell me how she had one time knocked a tooth out of her son’s mouth when he was a child. But it was only to make him behave and now that he understood the seriousness of life he had therefore become a successful photographer, you see. Oh, how she just wished that she could do the same for me and perhaps I would then get a chance to succeed in life also.

The family consisted of the two parents, a grandmother who also lived in the house and two children. The son (30-ish at the time) had moved out at a relatively young age insisting that he live on his own. Being tall and a fashion photographer with long flowing hair he was also dating models left and right. Remembering that the parents were not there but forgetting that I was,  he would sometimes bring a few of them back to the house for a ‘good time’.

The daughter (perhaps 26 at the time?) was still living in the house while working somewhere as an office-lady. For the entire year I spoke to her maybe twice. At home in the house she seemed both shy, terse and introvert. Then once I saw her drinking with her work-buddies and she was a different person all-together: fun and sociable. Go figure.

The grandmother was perhaps the most gentle, friendly and polite Japanese lady I have ever met – and that says a lot. I can say nothing negative about her. I was pretty surprised when she took me to a nearby grocer to help me navigate the food stalls and yet flat out rejected answering my questions about the different types of rice and what to do with them. But other than that she was just a complete pleasure to be around. A true lady.

The parents were half workaholics and half alcoholics. Running a fairly classy izakaya-restaurant in Tokyo helped them lead a life of sleeping odd hours and keeping it going with alcohol.

I remember one night when they came home drunk with some friends. I was half asleep but they insisted on waking me up and gave me a beer to drink. Here you have to remember the semi-official dynamic that Japanese invoke when drinking alcohol: drinking allows you a safe place for you to show your true self and speak your mind irrespective of any constraints that hold you back in your normal everyday life. The next morning everything is supposed to be forgotten and not spoken about but the wise man will take the complaints from the night before into account and learn from them. In situations involving alcohol, acting out is often both expected and encouraged as a way to bond with your peers.

Compare that to Denmark where changing personality after drinking a beer is only rarely seen as an invitation to bond. More likely it is seen as a sign that the person either already is or should be on some sort of medication. Although tongues do tend to loosen somewhat under the influence of alcohol, you are effectively responsible for whatever you do and say – regardless of your state of drunken- or soberness. If you have a problem and need alcohol to deal with it then you are seen as weak and possibly in need of either help or pity. Acting like a jerk while drunk does not make it ok. It just makes you a drunken jerk.

So – the parents show up drunk with some friends and then proceed to give me alcohol. After a few minutes and half a beer they then start asking me what the hell is wrong with me. Please explain the situation! What is it you want? After half a beer with some people I don’t like I am very far from the altered state of mind that they expect and in no mood to discuss my inner feelings and/or tell them where to stick it.

I therefore evade their questions with some of the nonsensical polite phrases that Japanese language and culture is so abundantly rich with. Fast forward some more beers I was still far from drunk and the looks on the parents’ faces had turned from looking upset to that of defeat and disbelief. After they went to bed one of the guests – BTW an extremely good looking girl whom I had met once before and who was now apparently engaged to a guy who looked like an awkward teenager – proceeded to try and make friends and sort things out.

I just wanted to go to sleep and therefore kept up the polite verbiage until I finally managed to excuse myself back to my bed.

I don’t want to paint myself as a hero here. I did not see a compromise between our positions and had sort of settled with the status quo of low level psychological warfare. So I rejected what was probably an honest hand reaching out to me. Was that wise? I don’t know. I just hope that from now on I will have the resources, mental and others, not to bring myself in a similar situation.

It also proves to me that moving back to Japan will take some serious preparations and require living arrangements separate from my mother in law. Curious as she may find me when looking at me on Skype from across the world today, in the long run I don’t think that living in the same house as her will be agreeable to either of us.


  1. I had also considered moving back to Japan but cannot see any happy outcome working at a Japanese company. The work environment is just too severe. When I get the itch to seriously consider moving back I just remind myself of this fact.

    Here in the USA I feel as though I have more freedom to shape the future as I want it to be. I think that freedom quickly diminishes in the Japanese world.

    Never knew you had such a tough time with your host parents. I thoroughly enjoyed my tiny Mejiro apartment and living by myself.

  2. If only the Japan could learn from the wise westerners who societies, languages, work practices, economies and people are so much more well adjusted and meaningful. Denmark-went there once- full of fat people-not much going on.

  3. @Mateo: trust me! If I had had the money I would have moved somewhere else. For both my and the family’s sake.

    @pompousdane: well well well. You’ve mastered both the correct spelling and use of the word “pompous”. Good on you. Still some things you have work on with your grammar, though. And I thought grammar was supposed to be the strong point in Japanese English education. Guess I was wrong.

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