Silicon valley works hard? Try Japan …

General | December 13, 2008 | 2 min read

I have been in Japan for the past week, working out of our office here in Yokohoma, meeting with customers and partners. The first thing you notice when you spend any time here is just how hard the Japanese work, even compared to the famously hard-charging work culture in silicon valley.  That’s what kept coming to my mind when I read Arrington’s post comparing silicon valley to France.

Here is the schedule of my colleagues in Japan, and this is entirely typical in Japan: come in to work at 9 AM, on the dot, after a standing-room-only commute on a very crowded train lasting an  hour or more, often changing 2-3 trains along the way.  Lunch around 12:30 to 1 – usually a quick affair, often at their desk, so it is not even much of a break.  Work till at 8 to 9 PM, with many folks staying in the office as late as mid-night, catching the last train, another hour spent commuting (trains are crowded even at 11 pm on week days!). If it is an important customer, you go out to dinner with them (add 3 hours!), and that means last-train-if-you-are-lucky and the last train is usually even more crowded. Yet, they are back at 9 AM next morning, impeccably dressed. I estimated that most of my colleagues cannot be getting more than 6 hours of sleep a night, and that’s assuming they do nothing at home after work other than sleep – which is what I did most of last week. I was so exhausted every day, all I could do was get to my apartment and just sleep.

I had joint meetings and a press conference with Intalio CEO Ismael Ghalimi, who also runs the Office 2.0 conference. Ismael and I were in violent agreement that life in silicon valley is a walk in the park compared to Japan.  I also have a colleague from India staying with me, and he tells me he can’t keep up with the Japanese, and work life in India is easy compared to Japan. We have bad commutes, and lousy roads in India, but at least the work hours are not nearly so long or so strenuous.

Here is what was shocking to me: I got off at my station one day at 11 PM, and there were 3 kids, who looked about 12, still on the train, returning home from their after-school study session. My Japanese colleague told me that was not unusual, and these kids would get up and go to school next morning at 8 AM. Well, at least Japan is very, very safe: one of my female colleagues walks the last 20 minutes home well after midnight, because by the time she gets off the train station, the last bus would have departed.

I am married to work myself, so it felt all the more weird for me telling my Japanese colleagues to cut down their insane hours. I am technically the CEO, and they are very polite, but when I hear “Sridhar-san, this is Japan” – the all-purpose “explanation”, I know they are not going to listen.

  1. Japan Jobs

    Another poster hit the nail right on the head. Sitting at a desk for 12-14 hours per day doesn’t necessarily equal productivity. Nobody really sees you when you stay late, but everyone sees you when you leave early.

  2. Japan Jobs

    Another poster hit the nail right on the head. Sitting at a desk for 12-14 hours per day doesn’t necessarily equal productivity. Nobody really sees you when you stay late, but everyone sees you when you leave early.

  3. Harsh Vardhan

    No doubt about the Japanese work style …. however a question to ponder would be how effective are they ? Might be they are the masters when it comes to Manufacturing industry , but when u look at an industry like the software industry … will such a work life make them leaders ? Very much doubt the same .

  4. Harsh Vardhan

    No doubt about the Japanese work style …. however a question to ponder would be how effective are they ? Might be they are the masters when it comes to Manufacturing industry , but when u look at an industry like the software industry … will such a work life make them leaders ? Very much doubt the same .

  5. Raj

    Sridhar, At at my previous company, one of my colleague was sharing this incident, he was the Project Manager for an implementation project for a Japanese company. His counterpart from Japan happened to call him at Offshore at 3AM in the morning. After two tries he escalated to the mgmt saying that the PM is not responding back to him when he called. When pointed out that it was 3AM in India and the PM would not likely be at work, the customer took umbrage, he pointed out that when I can work late in the night, why can’t you as a vendor!Not sure where this went though!

  6. Raj

    Sridhar, At at my previous company, one of my colleague was sharing this incident, he was the Project Manager for an implementation project for a Japanese company. His counterpart from Japan happened to call him at Offshore at 3AM in the morning. After two tries he escalated to the mgmt saying that the PM is not responding back to him when he called. When pointed out that it was 3AM in India and the PM would not likely be at work, the customer took umbrage, he pointed out that when I can work late in the night, why can’t you as a vendor!Not sure where this went though!

  7. 12 Hour Work Days « blog

    […] Pacific that has been displaying discipline and a heavy-focus on work.  Here is an excerpt from Silicon Valley works hard? Try Japan&#8230 by Sridhar Vembu, the CEO of Zoho, that describes a typical day for his Japanese colleagues: Here […]

  8. 12 Hour Work Days « blog

    […] Pacific that has been displaying discipline and a heavy-focus on work.  Here is an excerpt from Silicon Valley works hard? Try Japan&#8230 by Sridhar Vembu, the CEO of Zoho, that describes a typical day for his Japanese colleagues: Here […]

  9. Suresh

    I meant to add that it’s often easy to change a person, but changing the society, forget about it. Didn’t Mahatma Gandhi say “You must be the change you wish to see in the world !”. So the next time you are in Japan, give everyone a day off.

  10. Suresh

    I meant to add that it’s often easy to change a person, but changing the society, forget about it. Didn’t Mahatma Gandhi say “You must be the change you wish to see in the world !”. So the next time you are in Japan, give everyone a day off.

  11. Suresh

    Sridhar, Here is something to help you answer your question. I ( born in India) have been living in US for the last 10 years. Earlier, when i used to go back home to visit my parents, i would take train/bus to travel around the town. Often i would have trouble boarding a town-bus because people don’t stand in line to board. It was futile to teach them how standing in line and boarding would help everyone. But how can i change their Indian-ness ?

  12. Suresh

    Sridhar, Here is something to help you answer your question. I ( born in India) have been living in US for the last 10 years. Earlier, when i used to go back home to visit my parents, i would take train/bus to travel around the town. Often i would have trouble boarding a town-bus because people don’t stand in line to board. It was futile to teach them how standing in line and boarding would help everyone. But how can i change their Indian-ness ?

  13. Innovation/イノベーション壁新聞

    世界で一番厳しい日本の労働環境?−でも生産性はどうなんだろう…偶然だが「ヨーロッパ人」「シリコンバレーで働く人」「日本のサラリーマン」の働く状…

  14. Innovation/イノベーション壁新聞

    世界で一番厳しい日本の労働環境?−でも生産性はどうなんだろう…偶然だが「ヨーロッパ人」「シリコンバレーで働く人」「日本のサラリーマン」の働く状…

  15. Chris White

    How do you do this in the context of one company?The points you selected from the posts tell me what you believe: Real productivity requires people to be well rested which these people aren’t. However, peer pressure keeps them from getting enough rest. You feel its your responsibility to take care of them and the company by changing the situation. However, peer pressure and essential Japanese-ness are getting in the way of you doing that.Is that a fair summary of what you are thinking?If that is what you believe and with the two excellent links sriram posted in mind, then here is my suggestion: First, be willing to be wrong about what it means to be human and allow them to show you how far people can really push themselves. However, that said, have an honest discussion with them about being PEOPLE and people having limits. Get them to confess their tiredness through praise of how hard they are working. Tell them that it is your responsibility as their boss to ensure they have good lives for all their hard work. Ask them to try going home early for a certain period of time. Check to make sure it is happening. Then get feedback from them on the experience and evaluate the work they did in that period of time together. Then you and they will know if there is really a noticeable difference.A simpler way to put it might be: listen, be respectful and be confident in your own sound judgement. Your posts make it seem like you already do that.

  16. Chris White

    How do you do this in the context of one company?The points you selected from the posts tell me what you believe: Real productivity requires people to be well rested which these people aren’t. However, peer pressure keeps them from getting enough rest. You feel its your responsibility to take care of them and the company by changing the situation. However, peer pressure and essential Japanese-ness are getting in the way of you doing that.Is that a fair summary of what you are thinking?If that is what you believe and with the two excellent links sriram posted in mind, then here is my suggestion: First, be willing to be wrong about what it means to be human and allow them to show you how far people can really push themselves. However, that said, have an honest discussion with them about being PEOPLE and people having limits. Get them to confess their tiredness through praise of how hard they are working. Tell them that it is your responsibility as their boss to ensure they have good lives for all their hard work. Ask them to try going home early for a certain period of time. Check to make sure it is happening. Then get feedback from them on the experience and evaluate the work they did in that period of time together. Then you and they will know if there is really a noticeable difference.A simpler way to put it might be: listen, be respectful and be confident in your own sound judgement. Your posts make it seem like you already do that.

  17. sriram

    My hunch is that these “norms” not only bond people to their work (regardless of efficiency) but also to each other and their employer. It is too big a part of their identity, it seems and unless there is something to replace that, I don’t see why they would willingly give up their right to endure being squashed on trains and sleeping too little and getting drunk out of their minds.There might be another mysterious force at work as well. Suppose that the old 20-80 rule held here as it does in many contexts (20 percent of the people get 80 percent of the work done). These norms would force the 20 percent to uniformly work much harder (and produce more despite efficiency losses) than they would have elsewhere and what they do has disproportionate impact. So maybe, overall there is some benefit (regardless of the negative impact on the 80 percent) to these crazy norms.#…#…

  18. sriram

    My hunch is that these “norms” not only bond people to their work (regardless of efficiency) but also to each other and their employer. It is too big a part of their identity, it seems and unless there is something to replace that, I don’t see why they would willingly give up their right to endure being squashed on trains and sleeping too little and getting drunk out of their minds.There might be another mysterious force at work as well. Suppose that the old 20-80 rule held here as it does in many contexts (20 percent of the people get 80 percent of the work done). These norms would force the 20 percent to uniformly work much harder (and produce more despite efficiency losses) than they would have elsewhere and what they do has disproportionate impact. So maybe, overall there is some benefit (regardless of the negative impact on the 80 percent) to these crazy norms.#…#…

  19. Steven Veltema

    SridharYes there are potential customers who will judge you by if the lights are still on at 2AM. For established customers I would suggest that the key metric is “speed”. Often just “perceived speed” is enough. The office may not be open all night, but if your response and turnaround times are really good most customers won’t care too much. I tend to find the average (there are of course many exceptions) Japanese company’s response times comes across as very sllooooooow. It’s something I have to fight in my office (and sometimes myself as well, but that’s another story).It should be easy to beat a company whose employees are half asleep.

  20. Steven Veltema

    SridharYes there are potential customers who will judge you by if the lights are still on at 2AM. For established customers I would suggest that the key metric is “speed”. Often just “perceived speed” is enough. The office may not be open all night, but if your response and turnaround times are really good most customers won’t care too much. I tend to find the average (there are of course many exceptions) Japanese company’s response times comes across as very sllooooooow. It’s something I have to fight in my office (and sometimes myself as well, but that’s another story).It should be easy to beat a company whose employees are half asleep.

  21. Week After Tech Bloggers Bashi

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  23. 12-Hour Workdays in Japan - be

    […] Pacific that has been displaying discipline and a heavy-focus on work.  Here is an excerpt from Silicon Valley works hard? Try Japan&#8230 by Sridhar Vembu, the CEO of Zoho, that describes a typical day for his Japanese colleagues: Here […]

  24. 12-Hour Workdays in Japan - be

    […] Pacific that has been displaying discipline and a heavy-focus on work.  Here is an excerpt from Silicon Valley works hard? Try Japan&#8230 by Sridhar Vembu, the CEO of Zoho, that describes a typical day for his Japanese colleagues: Here […]

  25. Sridhar

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree with most of them myself. In particular, it is clear a) just spending such long hours at work does not mean real productivity b) you see the familiar sight of people taking naps in trains (while standing!), in meetings etc. that shows just how sleep-deprived they must be c) there is a lot of subtle peer pressure that keeps things that way, which is why the “Sridhar-san, this is Japan” response has meaning at many different levels. It takes on an existential quality, of essential Japanese-ness.So the question for me is: how do I change this in the context of one company? At the risk of being extraordinarily impolite, I do often bring this up. Customer expectations is another subject that comes up – you have to be seen to be working this hard by customers or else they may think we are slackers.

  26. Sridhar

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree with most of them myself. In particular, it is clear a) just spending such long hours at work does not mean real productivity b) you see the familiar sight of people taking naps in trains (while standing!), in meetings etc. that shows just how sleep-deprived they must be c) there is a lot of subtle peer pressure that keeps things that way, which is why the “Sridhar-san, this is Japan” response has meaning at many different levels. It takes on an existential quality, of essential Japanese-ness.So the question for me is: how do I change this in the context of one company? At the risk of being extraordinarily impolite, I do often bring this up. Customer expectations is another subject that comes up – you have to be seen to be working this hard by customers or else they may think we are slackers.

  27. Charles Zhang

    My parents have lived in Japan for a long time. They both work long hours in Japan, but said it was to not look bad infront of the boss. More importantly, the strict hierarchical culture in Japan does not allow for creativity in the workplace. This is why most innovations comes from the US, and the Japanese are know for refining US inventions.

  28. Charles Zhang

    My parents have lived in Japan for a long time. They both work long hours in Japan, but said it was to not look bad infront of the boss. More importantly, the strict hierarchical culture in Japan does not allow for creativity in the workplace. This is why most innovations comes from the US, and the Japanese are know for refining US inventions.

  29. Jan

    This doesn’t make sense. If all this time was quality time, Japan would do much better than it’s doing right now (I’m thinking at Sony). You can keep this tempo for two or three years (especially if you are below 35), but after that you loose productivity. You just sit there like a zombie and pretend to work, much like the movie Office Space. I have worked with many different nationalities, and I can tell you that amount doesn’t equal quality – far from it. Brits put in 10 to 12 hours a day on a regular basis, but you can do the same work in 6 hours if you are focused. The long hours is just a way to do a career or keep a job.

  30. Jan

    This doesn’t make sense. If all this time was quality time, Japan would do much better than it’s doing right now (I’m thinking at Sony). You can keep this tempo for two or three years (especially if you are below 35), but after that you loose productivity. You just sit there like a zombie and pretend to work, much like the movie Office Space. I have worked with many different nationalities, and I can tell you that amount doesn’t equal quality – far from it. Brits put in 10 to 12 hours a day on a regular basis, but you can do the same work in 6 hours if you are focused. The long hours is just a way to do a career or keep a job.

  31. Chris White

    I have lived in Japan since 2008. Since I teach English, I have a chance to speak with people working in various industries and in a variety positions far beyond the measure of common sense for someone of my status.Several years ago, one particular student helped me gain a little insight into the work ethic here. He told me his company had decided to send him to Singapore for training for two weeks. However, his 1 year old son’s birthday was on the weekend smack in the middle of training. When the director for the Asia-Pacific region who was Australian found out about this, he told the man to contact his boss in Tokyo and ask to fly back to Japan. He simply told the director he couldn’t because you don’t do that in Japan.After speaking with my student at length about the incident, it seemed like there were three things at work: a “rule”, stoicism, and peer pressure. The rule might be phrased as “There are no exceptions to the rules.” He tried to make it clear to me that this was especially true for personal reasons.He also expressed this stoicism which contained a carefully masked pride. If I translate it into an American context, it might be phrased as “Ah, you tired? Need a vacation? That’s ok. Go home to your wife. The rest of us men will stay here and work.” Obviously, he wasn’t suffering from this kind of gross chauvinism. It wasn’t done to display how macho he was but instead he was performing being Japanese.Lastly, peer pressure reinforces the “no-one-is-special” rule and his stoicism. Peer pressure isn’t any stronger here than in the U.S. People talk about how the Japanese are more group oriented or in the anthropological literature you can read about how “Asians” have no self. This is often contrasted with how in the “West” people are all individuals. I believe people in Japan imagine themselves to be similar so they have a higher tolerance for difference within the group. I always have CEO’s and physicists with Ph.D’s trying to convince me that they are just “average” Japanese people. In the U.S. the group fragments into smaller groups because everyone is “different.” You see the same kind of group identity being played out in smaller cliques with the same kind of peer pressure. People are people.It comes down to which kind of snake oil you want to buy. Do you believe that the Japanese are a people different from all the other people in the world because they are all the same as each other? So, we should be more tolerant of differences within this grand group we call humanity. Or, do you believe “there are no exceptions to the rule”, “no one is special” and your company is as much about it’s culture as it’s products? So, we put pressure on them to conform to this grand group we imagine to be humanity.For me, the question “Who is working hardest?” misses the point. The hard work is just a symptom. Many people admire hard work and when they see someone working harder than them they respect that. However, that goes hand in hand with living in a culture where you feel like, even if the option is given to you by a director in your company, you can’t go home for your son’s birthday. I am what I do. “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” (Exodus 3:14)

  32. Chris White

    I have lived in Japan since 2008. Since I teach English, I have a chance to speak with people working in various industries and in a variety positions far beyond the measure of common sense for someone of my status.Several years ago, one particular student helped me gain a little insight into the work ethic here. He told me his company had decided to send him to Singapore for training for two weeks. However, his 1 year old son’s birthday was on the weekend smack in the middle of training. When the director for the Asia-Pacific region who was Australian found out about this, he told the man to contact his boss in Tokyo and ask to fly back to Japan. He simply told the director he couldn’t because you don’t do that in Japan.After speaking with my student at length about the incident, it seemed like there were three things at work: a “rule”, stoicism, and peer pressure. The rule might be phrased as “There are no exceptions to the rules.” He tried to make it clear to me that this was especially true for personal reasons.He also expressed this stoicism which contained a carefully masked pride. If I translate it into an American context, it might be phrased as “Ah, you tired? Need a vacation? That’s ok. Go home to your wife. The rest of us men will stay here and work.” Obviously, he wasn’t suffering from this kind of gross chauvinism. It wasn’t done to display how macho he was but instead he was performing being Japanese.Lastly, peer pressure reinforces the “no-one-is-special” rule and his stoicism. Peer pressure isn’t any stronger here than in the U.S. People talk about how the Japanese are more group oriented or in the anthropological literature you can read about how “Asians” have no self. This is often contrasted with how in the “West” people are all individuals. I believe people in Japan imagine themselves to be similar so they have a higher tolerance for difference within the group. I always have CEO’s and physicists with Ph.D’s trying to convince me that they are just “average” Japanese people. In the U.S. the group fragments into smaller groups because everyone is “different.” You see the same kind of group identity being played out in smaller cliques with the same kind of peer pressure. People are people.It comes down to which kind of snake oil you want to buy. Do you believe that the Japanese are a people different from all the other people in the world because they are all the same as each other? So, we should be more tolerant of differences within this grand group we call humanity. Or, do you believe “there are no exceptions to the rule”, “no one is special” and your company is as much about it’s culture as it’s products? So, we put pressure on them to conform to this grand group we imagine to be humanity.For me, the question “Who is working hardest?” misses the point. The hard work is just a symptom. Many people admire hard work and when they see someone working harder than them they respect that. However, that goes hand in hand with living in a culture where you feel like, even if the option is given to you by a director in your company, you can’t go home for your son’s birthday. I am what I do. “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” (Exodus 3:14)

  33. kanjiroushi

    The counter part of spending long hours at work is you often find your japanese collegues having naps in front of their computer and an efficiency per hour spent at work well under what is done in europe. Of course, with the amount of time they spend at work it compensates.I am not sure being one of the first economies in the world and get enough money to buy Louis Vuitton bags compensate the time not spent enjoying family life.

  34. kanjiroushi

    The counter part of spending long hours at work is you often find your japanese collegues having naps in front of their computer and an efficiency per hour spent at work well under what is done in europe. Of course, with the amount of time they spend at work it compensates.I am not sure being one of the first economies in the world and get enough money to buy Louis Vuitton bags compensate the time not spent enjoying family life.

  35. Christophe Sautot

    I work at a web startup here in Tokyo, and am originally from California. Yes, people work an insane amount of hours here (in general), but it does not necessarily mean that they are being as productive/innovative/efficient as their Silicon Valley counterparts. I still believe that in order to perform your best, you need a proper amount of sleep, and some breaks outside of the office. If you spend a little more time in Japan, I think you will start to notice differences in the work produced, and the way people spend their hours at the office. Again, this post, and everything else that has been going on with TechCrunch/LeWeb, are generalizations on groups of people.

  36. Christophe Sautot

    I work at a web startup here in Tokyo, and am originally from California. Yes, people work an insane amount of hours here (in general), but it does not necessarily mean that they are being as productive/innovative/efficient as their Silicon Valley counterparts. I still believe that in order to perform your best, you need a proper amount of sleep, and some breaks outside of the office. If you spend a little more time in Japan, I think you will start to notice differences in the work produced, and the way people spend their hours at the office. Again, this post, and everything else that has been going on with TechCrunch/LeWeb, are generalizations on groups of people.

  37. John Koetsier

    I have read about the Japanese work ethic, which I have no doubt is amazing.But I’ve also read first-hand accounts from ex-pat workers in Japan who said that a LOT of the office time was actually just face time … there was not a lot more work actually getting done. But people couldn’t leave, because that would have been see as slacking. So they stayed at their desks, doing a little online shopping, doing a little of this and a little of that.Just from personal experience … how productive are you when you’re working 14 hours, day after day after day?

  38. John Koetsier

    I have read about the Japanese work ethic, which I have no doubt is amazing.But I’ve also read first-hand accounts from ex-pat workers in Japan who said that a LOT of the office time was actually just face time … there was not a lot more work actually getting done. But people couldn’t leave, because that would have been see as slacking. So they stayed at their desks, doing a little online shopping, doing a little of this and a little of that.Just from personal experience … how productive are you when you’re working 14 hours, day after day after day?

  39. Greg Wood

    Interesting. I try to convince my employees and my son that there are many in the world that will take their jobs. They look around their little world and they don’t see it.

  40. Greg Wood

    Interesting. I try to convince my employees and my son that there are many in the world that will take their jobs. They look around their little world and they don’t see it.

  41. Ian

    As someone who lives and works in Japan I can vouch this is absolutely true. Japanese work ethic is brutal. I used to work sometimes 13 hour days and worked overnight more than once. At my previous job a Japanese coworker had a hotel set and an inflatable bed in the office. That might tell you how many times he slept in the office.

  42. Ian

    As someone who lives and works in Japan I can vouch this is absolutely true. Japanese work ethic is brutal. I used to work sometimes 13 hour days and worked overnight more than once. At my previous job a Japanese coworker had a hotel set and an inflatable bed in the office. That might tell you how many times he slept in the office.

  43. Gabriel

    Your mention of Intalio caught my attention. Do you have any plans to integrate Intalio with your apps? Zoho Creator would greatly benefit from a workflow engine and Intalio is excellent.

  44. Gabriel

    Your mention of Intalio caught my attention. Do you have any plans to integrate Intalio with your apps? Zoho Creator would greatly benefit from a workflow engine and Intalio is excellent.