No pain, no gain: How old ideas hamper new ways of work

Exhausted Salaryman sleeps on a train platform

The infamously gruelling work style of many Japanese firms is rooted in a culture that sees endurance and exhaustion as proof of moral character.

In his essay on a three month spiritual education program undergone by new employees of a Japanese bank, the anthropologist Thomas Rohlen provides a striking account of the Japanese concept of “spiritual strength” (精神力, seishinryoku). The program, in which he participated, culminated in a 25 mile endurance walk, accomplished through repeated circuits around a public park. Along the way, senior employees – recent graduates of the same training program – offered cold drinks to the trainees; but the trainees had been instructed to refuse these drinks, along with a ban on all other refreshment for the duration of the exercise. Lasting from early morning to mid-afternoon, the walk was called to an early close as several trainees collapsed due to heat exhaustion in the sweltering summer sun.

Long hours, exhaustion, and low productivity are hallmarks of Japanese workplace culture that have stubbornly resisted efforts at reform – and the value placed by the employer in Rohlen’s account on an exercise designed to push employees to their mental and physical limits gives us some clues as to why this culture persists, despite growing acceptance of the damage it causes both to individual employees and to the economic fortunes of the companies themselves. Rohlen’s essay was published in 1973, but the spartan training regimens for new employees he describes still exist at some firms. A 2018 article on, a news site for legal professionals, featured a matter of fact discussion on such “hellish training”, covering issues such as the legality of forced night time marches, possibility of compensation for mental and physical trauma, and whether employees can legitimately face disciplinary action for “escaping” from such training programs.

Rohlen argues that the purpose of this kind of training is to demonstrate to new employees the nature of “spiritual strength” and driving home the importance of its development and practice. Spiritual strength in this context does not necessarily carry the kind of religious connotation that the word “spiritual” might evoke among Westerners; it simply refers to a mental and physical toughness, the ability to resist temptation and overcome hardship with willpower, endurance, composure, and a positive attitude. The idea is that through the development of spiritual strength through spiritual education, future ordeals will be less challenging, and one’s moral character will be elevated. A spiritually strong person is therefore both capable and virtuous. Importantly, we should not see the term as indicating some unique or essential psychological characteristic, but rather as a concept that informs the understandings of many Japanese people about people’s capabilities.

Late-night work is an opportunity for the worker to show their self-discipline and grit – overcoming tedium and sleep deprivation

Paul Nadeau, in his piece for the Tokyo Review, aptly described Japanese professional culture as input-based, “where long hours and late nights are a less a means to accomplish tasks and more of a means of value-signalling.” Attention to the notion of spiritual strength helps us to understand why such late-night work is understood to be so valuable and virtuous in the first place. It is an opportunity for the worker – whose office job is unlikely otherwise to require much endurance or stamina – to demonstrate his worth as a professional by overcoming tedium and sleep deprivation through self-discipline and grit. Perhaps the next day his or her boss will extend the perfect compliment – “you look tired” (疲れているね, tsukareteiru ne).

Although such corporate instances of turning desk work into an endurance slog have drawn attention within the context of the discussion on work style reform, they are but one manifestation of a broader approach to achieving, learning, and becoming a good person. This approach can be boiled down to a simple principle: that any legitimate achievement must be a test of mental and physical toughness. Achieving things needs to hurt a little. It is a principle that will be well drilled into most salarymen well before they begin their corporate lives, in large part through their experience in the Japanese education system, particularly in school clubs.

The importance of school clubs, known as bukatsu (部活), can be easy to overlook as they are not part of the formal school curriculum. They nonetheless represent a hugely important part of growing up for the vast majority of students. For many students from junior high school onwards, they are how any time left over from regular classes and cram school is spent. The most intense sports clubs can devote every morning, afternoon, and weekend to practice, with no breaks even during the holidays. It is not uncommon for students to fall asleep in class, having been up since the early hours of the morning for practice. And though clubs may be voluntary in theory, not joining any club is often poorly looked upon.

Founded to create tough and loyal young men for imperial Japan, school clubs now serve corporate Japan instead

The first such clubs were established during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Educational reformers sought to combine Japan’s own martial arts tradition with the Western tradition of organized sports, hoping to create tough and loyal young men for the newly established Japanese nation state. Peter Cave, who has researched historical and contemporary school clubs described them as a site for the development of moral character through organizational life characterized by strict hierarchy and punishing physical training regimens. Even the contemporary orchestra and drama clubs studied by Cave began their practices by first running laps around the school and doing sit-ups and push-ups.

Though school clubs suffered a brief lapse during the wartime years, they persist to this day in a remarkably similar form as before. Now, it is argued, they serve not imperial Japan, but corporate Japan, socializing new generations for the corporate cultures they will encounter after graduation. And although in recent years various problems associated with school clubs, such as bullying and excessive demands on teaching staff, have become a topic of heated debate, government statistics show that participation rates in sports clubs are largely stable.

The morally edifying quality accorded to physical endurance is not limited to club activities. Brigitte Steger’s research on Japanese notions of time and diligence highlights how persevering through sleep deprivation when studying for exams has a moral value quite separate from the intellectual purpose of studying. Indeed, the saying goes that if you sleep for four hours while studying you will pass the exam, but if you sleep as long as five hours you will fail (四当五落, yontōgoraku).

Many activities, including entry to prestigious universities, are organized as contests of effort and persistence rather than talent

Mental and physical endurance is the source of moral development and legitimate achievement. This belief in turn leads to a kind of meritocracy where many activities are organized so as to be contests of effort and persistence rather than talent. Indeed, the work of both Rohlen and Cave highlights the exhaustive repetition of basic forms as one of the most widespread and fundamental patterns of learning in Japan. One example is formal education and exams organized almost entirely around the memorization and regurgitation of facts. The achievement of admittance to a prestigious university is commendable not only as something objectively difficult, but because of the enormous effort that it is understood to acquire. Admittance attests to the spiritual strength and therefore high moral character of the successful entrant, who is seen as justly deserving the accomplishment on account of these qualities.

For generations of Japanese workers, a work style of long hours, sleep deprivation and the dogged execution of menial tasks is a logical continuation of the values and practices learnt in childhood and youth. The challenges faced by work style reform, such as suggestions by younger workers for improving productivity being perceived as laziness by their superiors, are not simply a matter of professional culture, but of how work, achievement, worth and virtue are perceived more generally. Even the most persuasive arguments for efficiency, productivity and shorter hours will be undermined by the fact that the subjective experience of a job well done will need to involve an element of perseverance through hardship. New work styles will need to be championed not only with new thinking about efficient working practices, but with new thinking on the moral value of work and diligence as a whole. Until such new thinking gains a foothold, sleeping eight hours and leaving the office on time just won’t feel right.

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Sakari Mesimäki is a PhD student at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge conducting research on political subjectivity in Japan. Sakari previously worked in business and communications consulting in Tokyo and holds degrees in anthropology and Japanese studies from the University of Helsinki and the University of Cambridge.

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