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How to Beat the Vicious Circle of Overtime

Posted on 2006/06/07 16:32:39 (June 2006).

[Wednesday 7th June]
There is one aspect of Japanese culture which I find hard to accept (OK several actually, but for now I'll just focus on one) - the whole business of overtime. People in Japan work rediculously long hours, which, as someone who actually values their free time, likes being with their girlfriend, and so on, is something I really don't want to be dragged into.

My average working hours have certainly increased significantly over my previous job in England, but I am still not prepared to go to the rediculous extent of my Japanese colleagues, and so I typically leave before them.

It turns out in Japan there is a kind of stigma attached to leaving earlier than the rest of your colleagues, which develops into a vicious circle of people in offices pointlessly hanging around later and later in the evening, simply because no-one wants to be the first to leave. What a sad state of affairs, that they're all perpetuating a system which is frittering their lives away.

Foreigners in Japan, like me, often tend to bring some of their own work ethics with them, especially at first, and will often adhere to seemingly rediculous notions that once they've got the days work done, worked past the basic requirement of hours, they can actually leave the office when they want.

So it is my opinion that offices which have a foreign member of staff view that person as a kind of benchmark for slothfulness; the lowest bar, if you will.

Despite my bold notions of sticking to my guns, and just working an amount of time that I feel is appropriate, I have to admit it does sometimes get to me. When I do need to work late, I want that extra effort to be appreciated and noticed. Unfortunately when all of your colleauges routinely put in several hours of overtime every night, unpaid I might add, my occasional extra exertions tend to get rather brushed over and ignored. This frustrates me.

Tonight was a good example of this, I had worked hard until past 8, which I consider to be quite late (my working hours are supposed to be 9 to 5:30), and I felt I'd done a really good day's work. My colleagues however, where all just routinely there in the office still, pretty much like they would be every night. I felt my extra effort was going to go unappreciated, and I was getting increasingly agitated as the evening wore on. I was willing them to just piss off and go home, and allow me just for once to be the one who looked like the hardest worker.

It has occurred to me on several such occasions, as it gets later and later, that me being the foreigner, and usually the guy who leaves first, that my colleagues may actually be waiting for me to leave. I am the lowest common denominator, the benchmark for laziness. God forbid anyone leaves the office before the token gaijin!

Eventually I decided I would have to take action. I certainly wasn't going to lose my whole evening to this rediculous mental condition, but at the same time I wasn't going to give in and let them win, yet again leaving later than me.

So I hatched a plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a fox.

I pretended to leave.

I turned off my monitor, shuffled some papers about, gathered up the things on my desk, made general leaving type noises and walked off.... but I didn't actually leave the building. No, I sat in the little break area on our floor, like a hunter lying in wait.

...the minutes ticked by, and it was a tense and nail biting time.

Originally I thought they'd only leave it five minutes - just a small gap to make sure they didn't bump into me on the way to the station - but five minutes past, and no sign of any of them leaving...

...the time ticked on, and I was beginning to wonder if I had misjudged it. Or maybe they were smarter than me? Had they seen through my ruse? Had they sent spies out to make sure I wasn't still lurking about in the building?

I had been waiting out there almost half an hour when, at last, my first sweet taste of success came - one of my colleagues strolled past, and I hit him immediately with a full force "otsukare sama desu". It literally means "you must be tired" or perhaps "thanks for your hard work", but we all know the underlying meaning is "you've left first AND I'VE WON!".

...then a few minutes later the other guy, even more hardcore than the guy before, also buckled. This seemed to confirm my theory - once one leaves, they all basically follow. Plus there seems to be some sort of default offset which must be observed after the gaijin goes home - apparently about half an hour.

I strolled back to my desk with an immense feeling of triumph, and made a point of sending a big email round to lots of people, under the guise of asking some technical question, but clearly the real underlying meaning was just to highlight the fact that I was still working after everyone else had gone home. Slackers!

That sweet feeling of victory continued throughout my journey home and the rest of my evening.

It was a glorious day.

Comment 1

FANTASTIC! I loved reading this post John. Working so late is just crazy. I work from 8:30am to 4:30pm and I can not imagine staying any later. Perhaps because ultimately I don't enjoy my job and find it mildly challenging on a good day and would much prefer to be home working at my own small business projects or spending time with my husband. I feel like my job is sucking the life/creativity out of me and a change is going to be needed soon. Although I’m still living in good old Canada and not considered a foreigner by my colleagues I am one of two young employees working in the office. It’s an industry textile company and everyone who works here other then my own boss (even that’s a stretch) probably couldn’t tell you exactly what I do on a daily basis other then to tell you that I make brochures. And a general chat about the weekend events, weather or news with someone else winds up with a short reminder that I’m too young to get this, that or the other… extremely frustrating.

It’s hard to take a leap and make changes as you get older (in my opinion), responsibility grows, relationships/connections build, bills/debts, commitments etc. It makes is less and less easy to pull up roots and make a move to something new, and just overall different. I hope you can figure out what your restlessness and frustration are telling you and what direction your life is to take next.

Posted by Malinda at 2006/06/07 17:26:51.

Comment 2

believe me, i have been there - i didnt pull the kind of stunt you did, i just resigned in the end - but i can see exactly where you are coming from.

the other thing i noticed was that even though they were staying late in the office, it was pretty obvious they were often doing very little other than clock watching, rather than contributing anything of any real value!

Posted by i-cee at 2006/06/07 18:25:02.

Comment 3

Honestly, John, I think it is pretty pathetic. Get a life, man! It is obvious you're not happy.

Posted by Sheri at 2006/06/07 20:54:59.

Comment 4

John, do you think this is something you need to do on a regular basis, say once a week,on a random day, just to keep them on their toes?
Also, do the 'higher ups' put in the same kind of hours?

Posted by kev at 2006/06/07 22:15:49.

Comment 5

Malinda: ah, 'tis rare indeed to find someone who when you ask them what they think of their job, the say "I love it, everything about it is great!". Should you ever meet someone like that, I will heartily endorse you shooting them.

You're right, it is harder to move as you get on in your life/career. I suppose I am lucky in a sense that I am fairly free to move - if things really aren't going to work out in Japan, there is theoretically nothing to stop me going anywhere in the world... In practice though it is unlikely we'd live anywhere but Britain or Japan - it wouldn't make sense for us both to be removed from our families (or maybe it would - perhaps that is the only way we can be on a totally equal footing?).

Posted by John at 2006/06/08 01:26:43.

Comment 6

i-cee: Same thing here - I think there is pretty much zero productivity after about 7pm. Significantly the "look at this interesting and vaguely work related website article I found" emails generally seem to get sent after 7. I rest my case.

Posted by John at 2006/06/08 01:28:29.

Comment 7

Sheri: Pathetic? Yes. Petty? Yes.

But did it feel good...? Yes!

I won't be here forever, but for a number of reasons I probably do need to stick it out for a while at least... So in the meantime I have to resort to this kind of borderline-neurosis behaviour to keep my self esteem.

Posted by John at 2006/06/08 01:30:57.

Comment 8

Kev: hmmm not sure I want to make a habit of it...

As for the "higher ups" well on my team there aren't any based in Japan - all our management are based in the US. My US colleagues have suggested that the management there don't tend to work much outside of office hours.

In the past I have read emails sent to the whole group along the lines of:

"We really need to make this deadline, so if that means some of you will have to come in at the weekend, then so be it..."

The manager who wrote that mail of course didn't go into the office that weekend, as he had a skiing trip that he just couldn't cancel.

Posted by John at 2006/06/08 01:36:39.

Comment 9

There are moments in life where you have to resort to pure strokes of madness, a bit like an impressionist painter on an white canovy, to save the rest of our brain from impending mental disorder.
I think that John did just that, he's fighting for what he believes is right, and in doing so he saves his brain.

When I am in Japan I feel sometimes pretty much the same, staying long hours in the office doing nothing, BUT this is they way the do it here, and the fact that I am a gaijin lets me free of not complying to these unwritten rules (if I find them so ugly).

I wouldn't venture into the manager argument, it's part of the unfairness of modern society. At least in the middle ages you had to be able to swing a sword to be a knight (in the vast majority of cases), while everyone smart enough can bullshit his way into management positions even if they don't have any skills... Ohhhh well...

Posted by Lox at 2006/06/08 09:01:09.

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