Strolling the late night streets of Tokyo last week I couldn't help noticing the high volumes of suit-clad local businessmen still out and about and very much in work mode. Whether busying away in their brightly lit offices, or discussing the days events with their colleagues in a nearby restaurant, work was their primary focus.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Japanese work ethic is no secret and it's not unusual for businessmen and women -although predominantly men- to work 60+ hours a week.
This got me thinking. Over the past 18 months I have been relentlessly researching what makes people tick. Not only what gets people out of bed in the morning, but what makes leap out with a smile on their face.
My experience however has so far been confined to the countries with which I am most familiar -namely the UK, Australia and North America. What about other leading nations? Does the same recipe apply in other countries with cultures very different from our own, such as the quirky island nation of Japan?
Well, I’m here for 6 weeks so what better time to dig deeper into what drives this curious country and learn more of their approach to pursuing happiness.
Lets start with some context. Japan is the world's 3rd largest economy. Its population of 127m has the world's highest life expectancy, the 3rd lowest infant mortality rate, a bunch of the world's top tech and auto companies and is one of the most educated in the world.
So all rosy then? Let’s look a little further.
Childhood - The Happiest Times Of Our Lives?
The culture in Japan is both clearly defined and relatively unique. In a shrinking world characterized by overlapping cultures and a blurring of the geographic lines, Japan remains relatively steadfast in it’s customs and long-standing beliefs.
From an early age children are taught the values of hard work, pride, loyalty and honour. Expectations to achieve are high and the associated pressures from family, friends and society are great.
Clearly defined visions and intense discipline bring benefits and risk in equal measure. As most of us know, in a natural world, children and structure are seldom found hand-in-hand. It is commonly accepted in the west that a child’s happiness is achieved through freedom of expression and the acceptance of trial and error as an inevitable aspect of learning.
In the main, both concepts seem to be conspicuous by their absence in Japan and by the time children reach young adulthood, a definitive path for their life has already been paved. Trial and, more tellingly, it's partner in crime, error, are not part of the narrative.
A stark illustration of the pressures placed on young people here the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 10-19. Expand that to include adults and the figures are frightening. In 2014, 25,000 people took their own lives. That's 60% above the global average! School and work related pressures were attributed to the majority of cases.
What about Careers?
As was the case with western nations only a generation ago, albeit a less clear-cut version, there is a well known career hierarchy. Big corporations are still very much the holy grail, followed by a career as a bureaucrat and then teaching. (http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-japan-entrepreneurs-20150329-story.html).
Also, as with the western world in a bygone era, job mobility here is low. Unless something drastic happens, you have a job for life -in the middle to upper echelons at least. Loyalty to the company is everything and jumping between roles is neither easy or socially acceptable.
But what if your interests or circumstances change a few years in? Surely being bound to one company in a role you may no longer enjoy must impact your happiness?
To add insult to injury, if discontent does set it -and let’s face it, in most cases it’s a matter of when, not if- one cannot simply pass the time, taking the path of least resistance until retirement.
No, company loyalty and pride in ones work are too strong a pulls for this to be allowed.
I must add, this approach does have it’s benefits. Never before have I been anywhere with such insanely high standards of customer service, cleanliness or quality. Everything is done with impeccable care and attention and even the act of buying a snack from a convenience store is a lesson in etiquette and service. It puts the UK to shame on this front.
Back to my point, loyalty in Japan is most commonly demonstrated by working all hours, socialising with colleagues after work and not using up holiday allowances.
For those of you who don’t see anything abnormal in this approach to a job, be aware, you are most likely more driven and proactive than the average Joe. In Japan however, this approach is the rule, not the exception.
My particular vehicle for the pursuit of happiness, amongst other things, is through entrepreneurship. For me, entrepreneurship provides the greatest flexibility to engage ones passions regularly whilst simultaneously leading a life of purpose and riches.
When the figures are assessed, this theory seems to hold water. Upon comparing the UN’s 2017 World Happiness Report (http://worldhappiness.report/) and Virgin’s 2016 study into the worlds most entrepreneurial countries (https://www.virgin.com/entrepreneur/most-entrepreneurial-nations-2016-revealed), the same 6 countries appear in the top 10 on both lists!*
According to the Virgin study, and many similar, one of the key characteristics of a country with high levels of entrepreneurship is freedom of opportunity.
To me, freedom of opportunity demonstrates a power of choice and the ability to pursue a life tailored to you and your interests. It goes beyond metrics like availability of capital and access to markets, into less tangible social aspects such as societal acceptance, attitudes towards failure and family support that together creates an environment conducive to leading a life on your own terms.
So where does Japan rank on both fronts? It doesn’t look good I'm afraid. In 2012 the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor put Japan in last place out of 24 developed nations for entrepreneurial activity.
Additionally, in the U.S. and Britain, one in ten companies is a start-up; in Japan it's one in twenty (http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-japan-entrepreneurs-20150329-story.html). These are just two out of many stats painting the same picture.
And happiness? It gets worse. Japan came in a lowly 51st position out of the 155 surveyed. To put it into context, that’s lower than Kuwait, Uzbekistan and Nicaragua!
I guess I’m not alone in thinking that living by the rules and expectations of others is no way to truly enjoy life? That by diligently following a pre-determined route, carved out by social norms and family expectations, does not lead to contentment?
Not Environment Again?
There is of course more to life than work. What about holidays? If you’re aspiring to reach the top, forget it. Japan is second only to the USA in it’s stinginess towards holiday allowances (10 days annually). If you take them all however, you can forget about that promotion.
Silver lining? They do have 16 public holidays…but none of them are paid.
What about my old favourite -environment? Family, friends and social interactions are crucial in determinants of happiness.
According to the co-author of the aforementioned UN study, the common thread linking the happy countries is their sense of community. That oh-so-important human factor I discussed in a previous blog post.
When things aren’t going right on an individual, local, or even national level, having a supportive environment with common interests, is key.
It appears this is sorely missing in Japan. A culture of reticence has pervaded Japan for hundreds of years. Raising issues and bringing problems, such as unhappiness, to light would show weakness and is something to be avoided.
Time To Loosen Up?
So what of the future? Will the country embrace the increasingly popular western approach towards educational, professional and entrepreneurial freedom? Will it discard the antiquated career hierarchy that passively, yet powerfully, dictates the course of a persons life? And will it realize the value in just letting people do what the hell they like and enjoy themselves? After all, taking risks and breaking the mould is what transformed the country from a small island nation, defeated in WWII, to a world powerhouse in a few short years!
Ultimately I am not here to suggest how an entire nation should approach life, nor am I qualified. There are people far better placed to pass comment.
No, I just want to learn everything I can about living a fun life, filled with purpose and passion.
Whilst Japan has both taught and humbled me in equal measure, simultaneously displaying incredible generosity and intelligence, I can’t help feeling they could all benefit from loosening up a little.
By removing the shackles and doing what they really love, not what others think they should do…they might just be happier for it!
*The 6 countries are: Canada, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Australia and Switzerland.