Many foreigners wonder what the daily life of a Japanese ‘salaryman’ or ‘office lady’ really looks like, as you often hear about the crazy working circumstances of people with office jobs in Japan. Let us tell you about the life of salary workers in Japan, as personally experienced in several Japanese offices. As you will read, life is not easy for a salaryman. If you want to read more about the life of the Japanese salary workers at the start of their career you can click here.
If you live in a big city, especially in Tokyo, many people cannot afford to live in the city center. So, they have to commute from the suburbs with an average commuting time of about 1 hour one-way. Most salarymen use trains and subways to get to work. At least, the Japanese public transportation system is very efficient and punctual. That’s why most office workers in Japan use trains, it is difficult to precisely calculate your commuting time by car because of traffic jams.
It is quite harsh to commute by train because it is super crowded. The occupancy rate in the morning on some lines is nearly 200%. This means that you have to be pushed to be able to even just get into the car. The only thing you can do on the crowded train is just standing without any space to even just read a book. Some people are sleeping while standing. Because of overcrowding, one or two cars are designated only for women so they can travel without having to worry about harassment. Either way, when you arrive at the office chances are that you are already exhausted by just getting there.
Arriving at the Office Early
Most of the companies start their working day at 9 am, but most of the employees arrive at the office a lot earlier than that. Before punching your time-clock card, you need to change into your uniform; many companies still have a uniform especially for female workers. It is also frowned upon not to be completely ready to start working at least 10 minutes before you actually have to start.
Many companies still hold morning ceremonies which often start before 9 am so that you can start your work exactly at 9 am. The ceremony normally consists of a short speech by the manager, reading the company mission statement together, and doing physical exercise with the same background music every working day, this is called Radio Taiso.
Lunchtime starts at the same time for everyone at noon and lasts for one hour. All the workers flow out of their office building at that time to have lunch at one of the nearby restaurants. This means that all the restaurants in business areas are very crowded between noon and 1 pm, and then they become empty again after 1 pm.
This is a handy thing to remember when you come on a trip to Japan, as it is best to avoid restaurants in business areas between noon and 1 pm during weekdays. Most of the restaurants offer a special discount lunch menu, so you can choose a variety of food at a price of less than 1,000 yen. This is a small highlight for many salarymen and office ladies on their working day.
If you have to watch your budget you can also bring lunch from home and eat it in a resting area inside or outside, or you can buy a take-out lunch which is usually cheaper than a restaurant lunch.
Salaryman’s Pocket Money
Even nowadays, the family budget is often managed by the wife in many families. The wife then gives an allowance to her husband, and the usual amount is (only!) about 1,000 yen per day. If the husband’s salary is on the lower end it may even be only 500 yen. In this unfortunate case, you can call the poor salaryman a ‘one-coin husband’.
The husband must manage to survive the day on only 1,000 (or 500) yen. He has to buy his lunch from it, and maybe cigarettes or a manga for some much-needed relaxation, and save a few hundred yen per day so he can finally go for a drink on Friday night.
Overtime Work in Japan
The basic working hours are 7 or 8 hours from 9 am to 5 pm or 6 pm, for 5 (or 6) days per week. However, many workers stay in the office until much later, for example until 9 pm to 10 pm. The company pays for overtime work, but many workers punch the time-clock cards earlier and still stay on to work another 1 or 2 hours without getting paid. This phenomenon is called ‘sabisu zangyou‘ or ‘service overtime work’.
Many workers stay in the office until late not because they are busy with work. There are usually one of two other reasons for doing (un)paid overtime. The first reason is they would feel bad for going home earlier than their boss and colleagues, even though they already finished their work for the day. Senior workers tend to think if they work longer hours, they look like better workers.
For the same reason, the average Japanese worker only takes 50% of the number of paid holidays they are entitled to. They would feel bad if they would take a long holiday when the other workers are busy. This bad custom still exists in many offices. The second reason many workers choose to do overtime is that they simply need extra money. The average amount of salary hasn’t changed for the last 30 years, so many salarymen need more money in spite of having a full-time job.
Socializing & Business Entertainment
Workers often go for a drink after work. If your boss invites you to go, it feels more like an order than a question and it is difficult to reject your boss’s invitation. If you really don’t want to go, you need to give him a proper excuse. Nowadays, the boss doesn’t invite their subordinates so often or strongly anymore, because his workers might think it is power harassment and bosses became a little afraid of lawsuits.
Other than by the boss’s invitation, workers also have to go for a drink with business partners. Though you can drink at the company’s expense, you always have to give a lot of attention to the business partners and you don’t get paid for that. It can even be a weekend of golf which is also not regarded as work but an important way to foster a closer relationship with business partners.
Going Back Home
After going for a drink or entertainment with your boss or business partners, you can finally go back home. The time of the last train in the city is usually around midnight or a bit later. If you take the train, you may see many people sleeping on the train. Sometimes they oversleep and miss their home station, which results in using a taxi from the terminal station or staying overnight at the capsule hotel at their own expense. And then the next day it is an early morning again, and rinse and repeat.
Your Japan Tour
As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect Japan tour including guides who can tell you all about daily life in Japan and what it is really like to work in a Japanese office. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!