It is true what they say. Japan is the hardest worked nation in the world. The average white-collared worker (サラリーマン, salary man) can expect to be at the office a full 40 hours a week plus mandatory zangyō (残業, overtime).

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What Is Zangyō?

In today’s article, we’re going to answer the question why Japanese people work so hard, and we’ll also take a look at how zangyō works in Japan as well as which industries have the most and least zangyō.

What Is Zangyō?
What Is Zangyō?

Why Zangyō?

The first question on most people’s minds is why Japanese people work such long hours. Don’t they have families to go home to? How about at least a hobby outside of the office? The short answer is yes, but it’s not that workers don’t want to go home, it’s that they are frowned upon if they do. This is a problem inherent in Japanese work culture, which took root in the post-WWII reconstruction era in the 1950s.

After World War II, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida wanted to reestablish the Japanese economy. In order to do this, the people needed to start from scratch and rebuild their impoverished country from the ground up. The only way to achieve this was to create a mentality that the organization was more important than the individual. A strong and successful company depended on solid teamwork and the tireless devotion of its employees. Therefore, it became essential that workers dedicate every waking hour to the needs of their company, which meant working into the wee hours of the night on a daily basis. The Japanese attribute this kind of work ethic to their success in becoming the third largest economy in the world. Since then, zangyō has become an integral part of Japanese work culture. 

Zangyō Today

Despite the early economic success Japan saw when it was working its people to the bone, times have changed, and the fallout of the post-WWII era has been cleared. As a result, it is no longer necessary for employees to devote so much of their lives to their companies. Therefore, the Ministry of Labor began to implement rules that limit the amount of zangyō each person is allowed. The current cap is at 45 hours per month and 360 hours per year—but also depends on the type of work agreement between the employer and employee at the time of hire.

Zangyō Today
Zangyō Today

Although laws are in place to protect workers and encourage a better work-life balance, some companies still choose to maintain the old work ethic. These companies, called “black companies” (ブラック企業, burakku kigyō), exploit their employees, forcing them to work overtime without pay (サービス残業, sābisu zangyō) and forbidding them to record overtime hours. This means that the figures between company records and actual working time may never be consistent. This type of environment  and general overwork has caused in recent years several cases of deteriorating employee physical and mental health, with some cases ending in karōshi (過労死, death from overwork).  

It is said that the reason Japanese people put up with these black companies is because working themselves rugged and grinning and bearing it is much easier than battling the labor market for another job. This idea is also reinforced by their elders who worked equally long hours when they were younger. 

In my case, my company has me listed as a “part-time employee” that works no more than 29.5 hours per week. However, this is not true. I am actually required to be at work between 8:30am and 5pm from Monday to Friday, which is a total of 42.5 hours a week! Why do I put up with this? Mostly because I’d be hard-pressed to find anything different, let alone better in Japan.

Zangyō by Occupation

What is the zangyō situation like for different occupations? In 2019, this site took a survey of 15,000 workers at 105 different jobs to see who works the most and least overtime. The results show that the average amount of overtime worked was 24.9 hours per month. 

Here are the top 5 occupations with the LEAST overtime:

OccupationExample Job TitlesNumber of Overtime Hours Per Month
1.Beauty-relatedhair stylist, esthetician, massage therapist10.3
2.Business administrationoffice worker, personal assistant11.1
3.Medical-relateddrug manufacturer, producer, developer 11.4
4.Medical administrationhospital office staff, receptionist13.6
5.Accountingaccountant, financial assistant14.8

Here are the top 5 occupations with the MOST overtime:

OccupationExample Jobs TitlesNumber of Overtime Hours Per Month
1.Equipment and construction managementconstruction manager41.6
2.Construction workconstruction worker36.7
3.Food products and consumer goods makerproduct marketer, wholesale operator, retail sales manager35.9
4.Publishing/advertising/web/video and film productionproducer, director, planner35.2
5.IT consultingapplication developer, IT system installer34.4
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In Summary

Zangyō is the Japanese word for working overtime. It is a common practice in Japan because of a work culture that dates back to the post-WWII reconstruction era. Today, overtime work is limited by the Ministry of Labor to 45 hours a month and 360 hours a year. Be that as it may, there are still disreputable companies that force employees to work undocumented overtime without pay, which has resulted in death from overwork in some cases. Industries with the least amount of overtime are beauty and business administration, and those with the most are related to construction and construction management.   

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