People in Japan, and Tokyo in particular, work a ridiculous amount, in a way that’s hard to comprehend if you live in, say, sunny California. Take a former student of mine, Naoko, who worked as a programmer. She worked—wrap your head around this—twenty hours a day.
“Every day at 4 a.m.,” she said, “they’d turn off the lights and we’d sleep at our desks for four hours.
“Did you have locker rooms?” I asked. “What about clothes?
“I just wore the same clothes, but on Sunday I’d go home for half a day, to shower. The men only went home once a month.
“That must have smelled pretty nice. How long’d you do that for?
“Five years and three months,” she said.
Okay, so maybe that’s an extreme example. A more typical case is probably my former student Masahiro, who’s an executive at a famous beverage manufacturer. He works from 9 a.m. until to midnight, six days a week, with a 15-minute lunch break at his desk. He has Sunday off, which is when he studies English.
“I have it easy,” he said, “since I work at an international company. Japanese places are a lot worse.”
“Do you ever see your wife?” I asked.
“I see her on Sunday,” he said.
“But Sunday’s when you come here to study English,” I pointed out.
“Ah, good point,” he said.
For most people, it comes down to two choices: work like mad as a single person and have a tiny apartment full of dirty clothes and half-eaten Cup Ramen containers, or get married. That way, the man goes off to work, and when he comes home after midnight, his dinner is sitting on the table covered in Saran Wrap, and there’s hot water in the tub. His wife and daughter are already asleep. Shopping, ironing, cleaning, paying the bills, everything’s taken care of for him. All he has to do is bring home a paycheck. The woman gets to do all the fun, fulfilling things like taking care of baby, grocery shopping, cleaning, and cooking meals. Sometimes I’ll ask my adult students how often they see their spouses, or ask the kids when they see their fathers. The answer is roughly on par with how often I’ve seen the Easter Bunny. I am, however, a big fan of marshmallow Peeps, so maybe it’s not as infrequent as you think.
The young Japanese people of today grew up watching their parents live this life, and it’s understandable if they’re not thrilled about this option. Marriage isn’t a great choice; it’s just the second-worst option. For a man, it means he’s working to pay for his wife. For a woman, it means a life of indentured servitude. A lot of people are apparently “just saying no” to the whole thing.
NOVEMBER 1, 2013 BY KEN SEEROI