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Work/Life Balance - Coming Never to Japan


The Japanese government is setting up another task force to tackle the difficult issue of work-life balance. Experts will come together to figure out how working hours can be effectively curbed.

Any Western spectator of Japanese business life will immediately bemoan the absurdly long hours expected of company employees. Work may end at 6:30 at many Japanese firms, but punching the clock at 6:31 is like sticking your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice. In the past, there may have been a hierarchical duty to stay longer than your own boss or go out drinking with management, but even as that corporate culture fades into the past, you do not see new employees out the door at a decent hour.

Long hours, however, do not mean high worker productivity. In the past, Japan has fared worse than Italy on this measure, and we can unscientifically assume that the Italians are getting a leisurely riposo in there while the Japanese drones buy a convenience store bento and eat at their desks for 15 minutes.

So cutting working hours in Japan is ironically an attempt to increase productivity: the article states “companies could boost the productivity of their employees because they will try to finish work in a limited time and will work efficiently.” Getting everyone home early could also lead to many positive social externalities, including more parental involvement in child-raising and less sleep deprivation in the general population. Objectively speaking, there are few downsides to limiting work hours. Perhaps the firms themselves lose huge amounts of free overtime hours, but this new plan promises to give them higher productivity in return.

Westerners immediately decry the madness if not the moral offense of workers slaving away at their companies until the wee hours of the nights. Liberal enlightenment ideas of the individual having free reign over his own self-definition tend to resent the concept of the “company man” — where individuals are reduced to inputs. Marxists believe that the worker must pursue self-actualization that puts the fruits of his labor within his own hands and not the capitalist’s.

Work-life balance, however, is a completely loaded Western liberal concept because it creates a dichotomy between work and life — as if they are antagonizing forces. The Confucian-Statist philosophical underpinning of modern Japanese society assigns each individual a specific, unmalleable role and posits self-actualization as the loyal and perfect performance of that role. Conditioning of these beliefs starts early: Young athletes choose to play one sport for their academic careers and do not change sports with the seasons like you see in other nations. Baseball players are baseball players. In general, Japanese people have one hobby, which leads to the famously maniacal dedication to certain “ridiculous” pursuits like competitive eating or obsession with a single fashion brand.

Since the Meiji Restoration, citizens of Japan have been able to choose their destiny and occupation without adhering to the strict Neo-Confucian caste system of warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants (士農工商) seen in the Tokugawa era. However, once the die is cast at 22 and the individual enters the company, corporate duty becomes “life.” There may be other familial duties, but the general culture clearly places these as secondary — especially in a gender-divided society where women alone are expected to embody “family” and all its subsequent duties. The “firm as family” ideology may have been invented in the early 20th century as a convenient form of labor control (that echoes the “nation as family” rhetoric of the kokutai [國體]), but even without the idea of “family ties” creating corporate loyalty, there remains a fundamental Confucian understanding of one’s place in the world being a fixed locus within Heaven’s order and not a progressive position of man’s choosing.

These days the “family firm” belief is drying out with the rise of tenshoku (転職) mid-career company change. Workers may choose new masters once and a while, but once the movement is made, long hours remain a key part of the corporate life. Because again, corporate life is life.

Eradicating this belief will be extremely difficult — barring some kind of Romantic revolution. The number of freeters is apparently dropping, echoing the original analysis that these young people could not find full-time employment and were not willfully eschewing it. The low birth-rate and unwillingness to open up immigration do not help the drive for lower hours. The OECD estimates that productivity will have to increase and hours stay at current levels in order to make up for the smaller future workforce. Retirement will also have to be pushed back.

State economic goals have almost always trumped individual rights in Japan, so I do not think the government will actually pursue a true course of “free time” that could cut into GDP growth. But more importantly, a large percentage of the population possesses a core belief that identity can only be attained through organizational dedication and that long-hours are a key part of that role performance. The government can mandate holidays, but they will have a real challenge to erase the base social ideology of (at least) the last two centuries. One can make the claim that these popular beliefs have their roots in elite social control, but even in that case, the elite will have to erase the effects of their massive success in completely legitimizing demands for worker duty.

If you think lower work hours will be a part of Japanese culture soon, you must be dreaming. And if you are dreaming, you are sleeping well. And if you are sleeping well, you are clearly not working enough!

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

One Response

  1. hex Says:

    Hi Marxy,

    I’d like to draw your attention to my excursus (if you will) on very similar topics at my blog, ‘Notes on an ongoing workplace struggle’ parts 1 and 2. I think you will find it pretty interesting. We managed to win a decent array of reforms in our workplace even if we couldn’t get some of the より ‘radical’ common-sense reforms.