Do the Japanese Really Work Too Much? A Thorough Look at a Day in the Life of a Japanese Person!
What sort of image do you have of Japanese people? Many people would probably say that they’re serious and hard-working. But is that really true? In this article, we’ll look at a typical day in the life of a Japanese office worker to better understand the Japanese way of life.
May 25 2020 (Jan 22 2021)
A Typical Weekday for Japanese Office Workers
Japanese people have a reputation for being serious and hard-working, so much so that the word “karoshi” (death from overwork) has become known around the world. It’s true that working too much, even to the point of death, is still a big problem in Japan. However, in recent years, the country has been rapidly implementing a “labor reform," including experimenting with different kinds of employment and rethinking long working hours in an effort to improve labor productivity. These have been part of a larger scheme to combat problems caused by an economic downturn as well as the drop in the working-age population resulting from declining birthrates.
So what does a typical office worker’s schedule look like in this new, reformed Japan? Let’s take a look at a weekday, from the moment someone wakes up to when they go to bed.
6:30 – 7:30 am: Waking Up
Most workers are woken up by their alarm clocks or phone at the same time every day. In Japan, punctuality is key, and oversleeping is seen as a sign that you can’t manage your own affairs, which leads to people trusting you less.
After waking up, Japanese office workers enjoy the highlight of their mornings: breakfast. In the past, a Japanese breakfast consisted of dishes like white rice, miso soup, grilled fish, and rolled egg omelets, but times have changed, and with them so have Japanese families and their diets. Be it due to single living or, conversely, having a large, multigenerational family under one roof, more and more modern households try to save time in the morning with a quick and simple breakfast such as bread. Whether it’s for health or beauty reasons, a lot of Japanese people also prefer to go with things like fruit, yogurt, and granola in the morning.
After washing their faces and brushing their teeth, Japanese office workers try to make themselves as presentable as possible, with women doing their makeup and men shaving. Japan places a lot of importance on etiquette and expects office workers to look their best. Coming to work with no makeup on or in a wrinkled suit is a surefire way to make people think you have no manners.
8:00 – 9:00 am: Commuting
In large cities like Tokyo and Osaka, trains are the backbone of public transport. They carry the majority of morning commuters, most often while overflowing with people. That’s why the time between 8:00 and 9:00 am— when the trains are packed with office workers and students— is called the “commuter rush.” Some Tokyo lines operate at 200% capacity during that time.
During their commute, most Japanese people are focused on their phones while texting, going on social media, surfing the web, listening to music, playing games, watching videos, reading books on their Kindles, and so on. In the past, people reading newspapers to catch up on politics or economic news was the order of the day, but with the current popularity of news sites, newspapers are a rare sight in Japanese trains these days.
Many workers use their commute to nap, skillfully managing to take a moment's rest whether sitting down or standing up while holding the hand strap. The fact they no one worries about their valuables being stolen is a testament to just how safe Japan really is.
12:00 – 1:00 pm: Lunch
More and more Japanese companies have started to implement a flexible work time, but for the majority of people, lunch still falls between 12:00 and 1:00 pm. Every weekday, the middle of the day is when you will see crowds of workers in office districts walking outside with just their wallets and smartphones.
At most restaurants, you can order a lunch set that will only set you back between 800 and 1,200 yen. However, government facilities and large corporations usually have their own cafeterias where a meal won’t cost more than 500 yen. Also, some people, whether to save money or time, opt to go with a simple convenience store sandwich, pastry, or onigiri rice ball. Others may bring their own homemade bento lunch and eat it at the office or a communal space.
Lunch is an important time during an otherwise busy day when Japanese workers can relax. Some want to spend it alone while others like to chat with their coworkers or get lunch over as quickly as possible because they are pressed for time. In the end, everyone’s lunchtime is different.
Japan has long placed value on not just the quality of work but also the quantity of work that people do. "Reading the air” (meaning “reading the room”) is a Japanese saying that points to a culture that prioritizes the group over the individual. That’s why Japanese corporate culture doesn’t permit heading home early just because you’ve finished all your work for that day. You’re usually expected to do some overtime.
However, more and more people have started trying to achieve a healthier work-life balance, and some companies have designated certain days of the week as "no overtime days" where the entire company can leave on time. Since 2017, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry has also been promoting the idea of "Premium Fridays," where everyone gets to go home early on the last Friday of the month. However, the practice hasn’t really caught on, most likely due to Japan’s still old-fashioned attitudes towards work.
5:30 – 6:30 pm: Time to Go Home
Japanese people have become more health-conscious in recent years, and many stop by the gym on their way home to make up for the day of inactivity at the office. Yoga is particularly popular with women for being good for the body and mind, and many enjoy the fashionable workout clothes available, too.
Many people also attend classes specifically targeting office workers, like cooking courses or English lessons. Classes held between 6:00 and 10:00 pm are very popular in Japan for this reason.
7:00 – 9:00 pm: Home/Dinner
After returning home, some people make a home-cooked dinner. Many people, especially those who live alone, instead buy a pre-prepared convenience store or supermarket meal on their way home.
There are also people who prefer eating out at inexpensive restaurants, like set-meal or gyudon (beef-topped rice bowls) chain restaurants or budget family restaurants. Chain restaurants often operate late into the night (some are even 24 hours!) and you can get a delicious meal for between 300 and 1,000 yen.
Around this time, you'll also spot izakaya (Japanese pubs) packed with groups of suit-wearing office workers or friends enjoying a drink. Unlike in the office, this is where everyone can finally be themselves and strengthen relationships, relieve stress, and recharge their batteries for the day ahead. In the past, it was normal to go out drinking with your coworkers or your boss at the end of the day. Refusing wasn’t really an option. These days, however, many people prefer to keep their work and private lives separate or simply do not like to drink. For this reason, after-work drinking parties have been on the decline, especially in workplaces with a lot of younger employees.
9:00 pm: Relaxation
After returning home from work, Japanese people like to relax, talk to their family, read, play games, watch TV/movies, or go on social media. The TV-viewing rate is actually highest in Japan between 9:00 and 11:00 pm, which is why all stations air variety and news shows as well as programming starring popular actors in that time slot. However, as in other countries, the advent of smartphones has also led to people losing interest in traditional television and instead turning to streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube. This is particularly true of the younger generation.
Nighttime is also when many Japanese people enjoy a nice bath. A shower might be enough during the hot summers, but when the weather gets cold or when you’re tired, there’s nothing like a relaxing soak in a bathtub to forget all your troubles. Bathing isn’t just a way to keep clean for Japanese people. It’s also a preferred method of relaxation.
11:00 pm – 1:00 am: Bedtime
Most Japanese used to sleep on futon mattresses and straw flooring called tatami, but nowadays more and more people prefer beds. Before they can turn in, though, many people check their schedules and prepare everything they’ll need for the day ahead. For Japanese people, who are raised to follow the rules of the group, being disciplined throughout the whole day is an ingrained habit.
Incidentally, it’s considered bad luck in Japan to sleep with your head pointing north. There’s a theory that it’s connected to the story of the Buddha who died with his head pointing in that direction.
What Do Japanese People Do on Their Days Off?
Japanese people continue to work hard from dusk till dawn during the work week. But what do they do on their days off? The leisure research department of the Japan Productivity Center ranked how Japanese people spend their free time in their White Paper on Leisure 2019. Let’s take a look.
5th Place: Watching Movies (Excluding TV)
The fifth most popular leisure activity among Japanese office workers is watching movies. Thanks to the popularity of TVs and phones, as well as streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube, more and more people are enjoying movies in the comfort of their own homes. However, since 2012, the number of Japanese cinemas has been growing. Even now, going to a movie theater is considered one of the best ways to spend your day off.
From cinema complexes that cater to all possible ages and types, to smaller mini-cinemas that have a dedicated core fanbase, there are plenty of ways in Japan to enjoy movies. There are also popular cinemas that feature cutting-edge technology such as 4DX, which uses moving seats, blasts of air, mist, and even fragrances to immerse viewers in the movie. Others, like IMAX, boast giant screens and special speakers that are tuned to deliver the most realistic sound possible.
The average price for a cinema ticket for adults in Japan is 1,800 yen, but there are promotions such as discounts on the first day of the month or Ladies’ Days, as well as membership cards that allow you to buy tickets for lower prices. It’s no wonder that some fans end up visiting Japanese cinemas regularly.
4th Place: Driving
For a typical Japanese person who follows the group and stays conscious of everyone else’s feelings, there’s nothing more freeing than a leisure drive. Rows of seasonal flowers in bloom, magnificent high plain views, the sun setting over the ocean; taking a drive in Japan allows you to enjoy all these amazing landscapes. Driving is an activity enjoyed by everyone from families, to couples, to groups of friends. But driving isn’t just about all the things you can see on the road; it’s also about the destination. It allows you to visit tourist attractions, enjoy local specialties, or shop at massive suburban malls.
In recent years, the growth of public transport and rising car maintenance costs has meant that more and more people, usually young urbanites, are opting to use car rental services instead of owning their own vehicle. This makes it easier to go on leisure drives, which is why the activity has been growing in popularity.
3rd Place: Reading
Some people may not have the time to pick up a book after a long day of work, so during their day off, many stay home or visit cafes to do a bit of reading. If all you’re after is information, the internet or television can easily provide it, and while more and more people are turning to e-books, it seems that many still feel that there is something special about turning the pages of a physical book.
There are many places in Japan where books can be enjoyed outside of the home. Book cafes, where guests can read one of the cafe's books over a coffee or a light snack have become popular in recent years, as have book hotels, where shelves full of books are placed right next to guest beds.
2nd Place: Eating Out
Eating out on the weekend is completely different than doing it on a weekday. People get to catch up with friends, spend time with their special someone, or see family living far away, all while enjoying delicious food. There are many kinds of restaurants in Japan serving all sorts of cuisine, such as Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Thai, and more.
Restaurant review sites have become very popular in recent years, so finding a good place to eat has never been easier. Many people like making lists of places they want to try out and then spending their days off eating their way from one restaurant to the next.
1st Place: Traveling Within Japan
The most popular leisure activity among Japanese office workers is domestic travel! In Japan, there is a clear change in the temperature and weather from season to season, which creates beautiful seasonal scenery and food to enjoy. Some countries offer their employees up to a month of vacation, but in Japan the longest continuous time off work that people can reasonably take off is five days. When coupled with the weekend, it can sometimes extend to a week. That’s why a lot of Japanese people use their vacation time, no matter how short, to do a bit of traveling around the country.
Many travel to areas famous for fresh seafood or Japanese wagyu beef, to hot springs, or to picturesque tourist destinations that offer memorable one-of-a-kind activities. Traditional ryokan inns are also popular. At these, visitors can enjoy delicious food made from local ingredients served right in their own rooms or walk in the streets of the beautiful onsen towns while wearing traditional kimono-like robes called a yukata. These inns have many packages that allow people to experience the best that Japan has to offer. In recent years, brand-new types of lodgings have also become available, like renovated "machiya" (old Japanese houses) or capsule hotels equipped with the latest IT tech. Japan has something for all kinds of travelers.
Other: Super Sento Bathhouses
The custom of soaking in a bathtub is a big part of Japanese culture. Most Japanese houses have a bathtub, and yet, people all over the country like to go to sento bathhouses where they can relax in massive public tubs. So-called "super sento" have also become popular in recent years. They are much larger than regular bathhouses and often include things like saunas, jacuzzis, bedrock baths, and massage equipment, not to mention restaurants and game arcades. That’s why super sento are popular with everyone from families with children, couples, and the elderly, who flock to the bathhouses on their days off. Super sento buildings often have a traditional Japanese feel to them and may even rent out yukatas. Others even offer accommodation, so guests can stay overnight. They’re almost like amusement parks, which is what makes them popular with foreign visitors to Japan as well, and no wonder. There is nothing more Japanese than spending an entire day enjoying a public bathhouse.
A Day in the Life of a Japanese Person
And this is how a typical Japanese person spends their time. How does it compare to your life? If you’re ever in Japan, look around at the people going about their days in the morning, afternoon, and evening to observe with your own eyes the things written in this article and get a feel for what life is really like for people living in Japan.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.