Golden week and Some problems in Japanese workplaces

(since this turned into a bit of a serious topic, I included sources to where I got the information)

Whew, I just had a busy fortnight! First, my sister and her boyfriend come over to visit for a few days (I’ll write about them on Friday), then I headed off to Korea for a week.

Anyway, I’m back now, and ready to start writing again, and since it’s Wednesday, that means it’s time for a look at Japanese culture, from an outsider’s perspective. This week: Golden Week and (some) Japanese Workplace Environments.

Golden Week is the name given to the group of holidays surrounding the end of April and the start of May (April 29th, May 3rd,4th,5th). These four days, which often line up with weekends, give the single longest period of days off for many Japanese workers.

Most, will take some of their annual leave during this time, to make an enormous holiday. I, for example, used five days of leave, and got a total of 12 days off in a row.

During Golden Week, it seems as though everyone in Japan is travelling from one place to another. Shops are constantly busy, subway stations are filled with visitors, whose faces are glued to maps, and ‘greasy spoon’ restaurants, which previously only saw business from revellers on a night out, now have lines around the corner.

Golden Week is a time of revels in Japan, with most towns putting on small festivals of markets. It is also very important for people’s well-being, considering how hard many Japanese people work. Many Japanese workers avoid taking their paid vacation, and will work extra (unpaid) hours to show dedication to their job. Which brings me to the second part of the post:



(and I’d like to stress that this only concerns SOME workplaces)

I, like many foreign workers in Japan, leave my school’s staff-room exactly as my work-day finishes. My fellow teachers officially finish at 16:30, yet many of them will stay much, much longer than that.

The teacher who sits next to me, admitted that she frequently stays in the office until as late as 21:00! When asked about why they stay so late, many of my co-workers say that they have a lot of work to do, and they don’t want to let their students down and that they need to make up the time by working after hours.

And this really is ‘after hours’ work, as it is usually unpaid. That’s right, teachers can work up to, or over, 20 hours of unpaid overtime a week. The reason behind this is mainly down to the vagaries of Japanese culture, specifically, , (wa) or ‘harmony’ in the workplace. (1)




The ideal harmonious Japanese work environment is one of peaceful unity and conformity. In this ideal workplace, all workers are friendly, get their work done on time, and most importantly, they work as a team. Team work is so important that if a worker cannot get their work done during their hours, they make up the slack after hours, to avoid letting their co-workers down. If they finish ahead of time, there is also a large amount of pressure not to leave ahead of your own superior, or risk looking like they don’t really care about the team.

So, if a worker were to finish all their assigned work ahead of time, they may find themselves creating ‘busy work’ or stretching out an easy task in order to seem like they are working hard during these extra hours.

The online newspaper, Japan Today, conducted a survey as to why its readers felt that Japanese people worked so many hours. The results were varied, with reasons ranging from company loyalty to low productivity and stretched out tasks to fear of disturbing the status quo, and not doing what is expected of them will result in disciplinary actions. (3)




There are companies in Japan that flagrantly ignore the regulations set in place to protect workers from abuses. These companies have been given the nickname ‘Black Companies’. A survey in December, reported that of the 5,111 companies surveyed, 82%, or 4,189 of them were clearly violating labor laws or engaging in illegal business practices. Workers were often forced to work extra hours by receiving disapproval from co-workers, finding themselves passed over for advancement, or not having their contracts renewed if they were not seen to be devoting themselves to the company. (4)

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare intends to publish the names of the companies in question, if they fail to clean up their acts. Yet, with so many companies in clear violation of the laws, it is unlikely that such a small measure will have an effect. The Ministry will need to implement harsher penalties to the Black Companies if they want to see any changes. This is especially true, with the ever increasing number of young people leaving the workplace, or worse, suffering from 過労死, or karoshi (4)




Karoshi roughly translates as ‘death from overwork’, and it is somewhat ominous that Japanese has a specific word for this tragic circumstance. An extreme example of this would be the Watami Food Service Company, which hired a new female employee, and, according to an investigator, forced her to work more than 140 hours of overtime a month. Tragically, the woman committed suicide after enduring two months of such an oppressive work-environment. (2)

Karoshi is a terrible thing, and is one of the reasons attributed to Japan’s extremely high suicide rate. Lower level employees are de-humanized by the faceless companies and feel alienated, as though they have nothing to live for but work. (1,2)




About a month ago, my school’s Vice-Principal made an announcement during the morning meeting on a Friday. I didn’t catch everything, but I heard a reference to the upcoming three day weekend. Of course, this made me fear for my day off, so I made a bee-line for the nearest English teacher. It turns out that he was actually saying that the staff-room would be locked at 6pm, and would stay locked for the whole weekend. That’s good, right?

The teacher did not think so. He said he had work to do, and by forcing him to leave the office, he would have to work at home. This is by no means a once-off thing. Many companies have introduced similar practices, to try to force people to take time off. This has been met with mixed results, including reports of workers pretending to go home, and then sneaking back into their office to work in the dark. Despite this, and resistance from other areas, these ‘go home’ days, are becoming more common, especially in the wake of the survey.

Of course, this is just like putting a band-aid on a serious wound. Sure it’s a good idea, and it’s a step in the right direction, but a lot more is needed. A lot of people, especially in the survey already mentioned, believe that such a major social change is next to impossible to achieve in Japan. They believe that the strict social hierarchies will prevent lower level employees from being able to take advantage of the new rules and regulations. (3)










6 Things you Need to Know About ‘Enkai’ (drinking parties)…

It’s the end of the school year in Japan, which means there are a whole load of work parties to slog through. The Japanese love office parties, for a few reasons. They give the lower level employees a chance to voice concerns with their bosses, they let people from different departments mingle (important, since Japan’s birth rate is collapsing), and they have all you can drink alcohol…


all the beers


We had the end of year party for retiring teachers and the English department had a separate one for the departing English teacher. Next weekend, after the new term has officially started (but thankfully, before any classes) we’ll have another big party to welcome the new teachers, then the English department will have YET ANOTHER party to welcome the new teacher.


In a short couple of months, I will be leaving Japan for the cloudy skies of Ireland, and


If you were an alcoholic in Japan, it would be very easy to hide it, what with all the unlimited booze parties.



1- They are expensive

All that beer and food has to come from somewhere, and the average enkai will cost upwards of 5,000, ($50). Enkais up to 10,000, are not unheard of, and usually the big parties clock in at around that price tag.


For all that money, you could be forgiven for wondering where it all went, after all, it didn’t go on the food. Hotels and restaurants serve up the tiniest portions of food that they can get away with. Undoubtedly, it’s tasty, and of a decent quality, we just wish there were… more of it.




2- All you can drink, means all you can drink (to an extent)

Yes, what I said earlier is true, these parties are all you can drink, except you’re limited in two ways.


– you cannot fill your own drink. It’s a weird custom that since everybody is friends at an enkai you should never have to fill up your own glass. So, if you run out of beer, wine, whiskey or sake, you need to fill up somebody else’s glass to give them a gentle reminder that your throat’s as dry as the Sahara.


-the glasses are tiny. In keeping with the control of the food portions, the beer glasses hold (at most) 100ml of beer. Thankfully, there are large bottles of beer on every table, now all you have to do is remind a co-worker that you’re running empty, and try to avoid the temptation to take two of the bottles and attempt to recreate the ‘Edward 40-hands’ scene from ‘How I Met your Mother’.




3- Even though you are drinking, you must still be polite

Yup, this is Japan, and even while drunk, you have to follow the rules. At some stage during the party, you will have to stumble your way over to the boss’s table, make some polite conversation, fill up his drink and get out of there as smoothly as possible.




4- The nijikai (second party) is all but compulsory

Every enkai is followed by a nijikai, usually this happens when the ‘all you can drink’ time at the first place expires. The most hardcore of drinkers will stay for the sanjikai (third party), but you don’t need to concern yourself with that. After all, if you’re not completely polluted after four hours of non-stop drinking, what will two more do?


The nijikai is even more focused on the drinking than the first one (if that’s possible), and it’s where all the office gossip, promotions, assignments and schedules are arranged. Make sure you attend, or you’ll find yourself out of the loop when your co-workers are getting all the choice jobs.




5- You will make new friends (for an evening)

In my school, there is a teacher who only talks to me at enkais, seriously. This guy’s English, combined with my Japanese means that we can have a grand old chat together. At the last party, he got… a little tipsy, and started comparing the female teachers’ breasts to fruit, from grapes to melons.


Did you know that there was a size difference between apples an oranges? Or that kiwi is an acceptable measurement for cup size? Me neither, but this guy did…




But the point is, this guy won’t talk to me if he doesn’t have a glass full of Dutch courage in his hand. Apparently, he’s shy… (I’ll never be able to look at pears the same way again.)



(How I think I look)

6- If you’re foreign everything you do will be remembered

Seriously, I don’t need to say much. This picture summarizes it perfectly.




Remember when the foreigner (and everybody else) couldn’t handle their drink? Great times!’



It might seem like I’m coming down on enkais, and I suppose that I am, a bit. I still love them, they’re a great way to let your hair down with your co-workers, as well as have some fun, interesting, and downright terrifying conversations.


But hey, if Japan is anything, it’s fun, interesting, and a little terrifying!