Saturday, January 10, 2009

Work equals force times distance (Noah Smith)

I am waiting in the departure lounge at JFK in New York for my flight to Tokyo. In the mean time, here is another contribution from Noah Smith. - TSH

Taro Aso, speaking before a parliamentary committee, recently said that "Japan's belief in hard work contrasted with that of the Judeo-Christian tradition," and that world religions could learn from Japan's work ethic. Interesting. Apparently he hasn't read Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

In any case, it's undeniable that Japan's workers work a lot of hours (though Australians work more, and the third, fourth, and fifth spots go to the U.S. Canada, and the UK - Weber gets the last laugh). And Japanese companies are famous for requiring unpaid overtime. But how much of that "work" is really "hard"? As software engineer Peter Gibbons points out in the film Office Space, it's easily possible to show up and punch the time card without getting anything done or even exerting serious effort. Twiddling your thumbs and surfing sports news while you wait for the boss to go home does not count as "work ethic."

Now, I'm in no position to know how much time Japanese workers spend twiddling their thumbs. But I am in a position to know that Japanese white-collar labor productivity is substantially lower than most other rich nations (including Asian nations such as Taiwan and Singapore). That means that whatever is getting done in all those long hours Japanese people spend in the office, it's not as much as it could be. Any physics student will tell you that work equals force times distance*; Japanese workers put in a lot of force without getting enough distance.

Japan's leaders should recognize this distinction. We all know the story of how government protection of Japan's domestic service sector has left it inefficient, but it's important to realize the real impact this has on the lives of Japanese people - parents who can't go home to be with their children, salaries that are lower than they could be, exhausting hours of work put in with not enough to show for it at the end of the day. Maybe Aso should take a clue from King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 4:14, and help the Japanese people to work smarter, not harder.

- Noah Smith


Lionel said...

Hi Noah, thanks for the post. This is a subject I too am interested in, I also read Aso's comments and think there is plenty to discuss about the Japanese work ethic, so will throw in my 2 cents.

Agreed that 'voluntary overtime' hours are often spend inefficiently, but there is more to the story than just efficiency ratings (which is a financial measure: measuring how much profit margin each dollar that gets spent will make, is it not?). I can talk about this for a long time, but for now I will offer a generalised comment, and try to follow up with a more specific comment soon:

Western commentators generally speak like they desire aspects of Japan's society to evolve to be like Western society. There are a lot of good commentators offering erudite opinions out there. Your post about overtime and efficiency are facts.

But I think, firstly, in our interpretations, we must keep the characteristics of Japanese values in context. Secondly, we should ask whether the negative things we see in Japan are either side-effects, or come inseperably packaged with other things which we see as positive aspects of Japan. In my perception, this is often the case. But I feel that a lots of bloggers and commentators in their writing forget to put their (justly made) criticisms of Japan in the context of what makes Japan special.

Now, I suspect that such commentators do appreciate Japan's unique characteristics, because after all, they are devoting a lot of free time to commenting on Japan.

(Sorry that I have not been specific about what you wrote yet, but I continue with another comment later.)

Baltimoron said...

I could say the same for ROK. The definitions of 'work' come with disclaimers. Until those definitions are uniform and accurate, anecdotes like the game-playing office-worker cannot make those stats suspect. Household surveys are also an invitation for lies.

Our Man in Abiko said...

Nicely written post, and welcome to the firm.

But isn't most office work, no matter what country you're in, largely a waste of time? Sorry, don't have a biblical reference for that observation.

David said...

In the early 90s, I worked in a small factory in Toyama City. When I first started, in the office as a token gaikokujin, I would finish my assigned 2 hours or so of work as soon as I could. This caused quite a bit of "confusion" as they had nothing else for me to do. I soon learned to make 2 hours of work into 8. It was a very exciting job.

Out on the shop floor, I noticed similar behavior. If folks were busy, they'd work at a normal rate. If they seemed to be a little short on work or finishing before quitting time, they'd slow to a snail's pace. I once helped painting the heads of about 50 small screws on one of the machines. It took 4-5 of us over an hour. They were perfectly painted, though, and were finished just in time for the day to end.

Andrew Shuttleworth said...

Should that not be "Japanese workers put in a lot of distance without enough force" rather than "Japanese workers put in a lot of force without getting enough distance"?. A long time since I studied physics so I could be reading it wrong, but just a casual observation.

Anonymous said...


yes this is also what I have heard.
Also it seems to be a "well known fact" that Japanese companies have significantly lower productivity to their western counter parts.

Much of this, apart form that which you have also observed, is also down to the patronage system.

There are reports that "older" employees who have worked for the company some 20~30 years are not sent for redundancy when they can no longer work or do the "modern" work. (IN their western counter part companies they will be made redundant). In Japan they keep them out of a sense of loyalty. There are cases of 'old men' sat at desks in Honda, with large salaries even, who have nothing to do all day. This is rather nice for the elder person, nice that the company recognises their contribution too, however, it does nothing for productivity.

My wife works for a company in Osaka. There are several 'older employees' who are like this. They sit behind their desks and wait for a piece of paper to land on their desk and then stamp it with their Hanko. That is all they do and perhaps just 3 or 4 times a week. They do absolutely nothing else. My wife produces the data/reports for them to stamp. She can't stamp it, because she is a women! But they can't produce the reports, because they don't know how too....nor understand the data in the report.

Noah said...

Anon - You're right, those probably are big sources of the productivity difference. Another is the unwillingness of many companies to abandon paper record-keeping.

Actually, blue-collar productivity in Japan is higher than in the U.S. - higher than any country except Germany, I believe.

Anonymous said...


Your position about "..we should ask whether the negative things we see in Japan are either side-effects, or come inseperably packaged with other things which we see as positive aspects of Japan..." Is an interesting one.

However, if person A commits murder, mass murder with no remorse, is then sentenced to prison for life. After 30 years gets parole. The intervening years person A has mellowed, become more of a humanitarian and recognised the error of his/her ways and decides to become a much better person. Person B meets person A at a cafe, and they chat etc. They meet regularly and something bad suddenly happens to person B. Person A, in the "new persona" helps out with gusto, never asking for anything in return and goes "beyond the call of duty" to ensure person B's welfare.

Person B will then naturally think person A is wonderful, an example to everyone.

So, do the deeds of person A prior to going to prison justify the new look person A and becoming a humanitarian?

Clearly you think it does. Whereas I prefer to think that the deeds performed by person A after incarceration should have been there from the start, not as a result of their major change in environment and freedom.

One must not loose sight of the whole picture...the ends to not justify the means.

Anonymous said...

There's tons of useless overtime worked at many Japanese companies. Some of it is joke overtime -- people staying just because the boss is still there.

Some of it is forced because the management decision process and the way projects are run is very inefficient.

One long-term Japan hand told me, a lot of the section heads and others who lead the overtime drive, are actually just on a mission to provide a good cover story for their affairs and sexual adventures.

Also on the subject of work ethic, Japanese are astoundingly indolent when they want to be. As a Brit, my protestant work ethic makes me feel guilty not to do something, anything on days off.

My (Japanese) wife and her family are perfectly happy to get up very late, eat breakfast, have a break for coffee, and laze away the afternoon reading the chirashi adverts in the paper, before popping out to buy some cakes. Then a leisurely dinner, bath, TV and bed.

That said, the Japanese work like billy-oh when they have to.