Updated July 1, 2023

Japanese Work Culture: Here's How to Survive


Japan Dev Team

Japan Dev contributor

Japanese work culture is notorious for being harsh.

Are you hesitant to work in Japan because you've heard horror stories about the work culture? If so that's not surprising — a lot of people have reservations about working in Japan.

The legacy work culture of many Japanese firms turns a lot of foreigners away from working in Japan. But times have changed — the reality of present-day Japan's work culture is more nuanced.

In fact, we built Japan Dev precisely because we realized there are so many companies that offer a great work environment in Japan. And we've seen the number of modern companies increasing — especially in the tech industry.

You can check our list of vetted jobs for software developers in Japan here.

This article will explore Japan's work culture to uncover the truth about working conditions in Japan.

We'll explore the history of working in Japan up to the latest developments. So keep reading if you want to understand why Japan may be a good option and how you can achieve a great work-life balance here.

Is Japan a hard-working country?

It’s no secret that Japan has its fair share of workaholics. Japanese work-life balance isn't usually thought of as being particularly good either. The traditional work culture in Japan emphasizes extreme dedication to one's work. And while there have been notable changes in Japanese work conditions, Japan is still a hard working country.

In 2015, an Expedia Japan survey found that 53% of Japanese people don’t know about how much annual leave they have. Even so, it's common for employees to feel guilty for taking paid vacations. And not only that, but only 52% of the participants agreed that a work-life balance is essential.

This level of dedication to their jobs renders many Japanese employees unhappy. In fact, they are the world’s second most vacation-deprived workers overall. Japan even ranked last in the 2016 Indeed Job Happiness Index among 35 countries surveyed.

Not to scare you even more, but The Japan Times also revealed that 1 in 4 companies admitted that their employees used to work between 80-100 hours of overtime per month. These extra hours sometimes even went unpaid.

However, do take note of the keywords: used to.

Fret not, because these unfortunate conditions are now history. Over the past few years, Japanese work culture has changed.

According to Statista, Japanese employees worked for around 136.1 hours per month in 2021. While this is a slight increase from the previous year’s 135 hours, it’s actually considerably lower compared to their record high of 147.1 hours in 2012.

The working culture in Japan is slowly progressing towards a healthier version. The noticeable decrease in the working hours is a big step! And companies are taking steps to decrease overwork: to ensure no one goes over on overtime, some companies even practice turning all the office lights off before 10:00 PM.

Despite such development, it is obvious that Japan’s work culture and mindset are still undergoing transformation. Take a look at Japan’s history to understand why the Japanese work culture became physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting for many employees.

Why does Japan work so hard?

So why are Japanese so hard-working?

Well, the hard-working culture of Japan is deeply rooted in the country's history. Sadly, this acute dedication to one's work has even resulted in karoshi (過労死) or death from overwork.

Nippon.com reveals three main social factors behind this tragic phenomenon:

  • Japan’s desire to be on the same level as its Western counterparts
  • Collectivist mindset
  • Availability of convenient services

The first reason dates back to the Meiji restoration era in 1868. The feudal society of Japan wanted to reach the same economic level as rich, powerful industrialized Western countries. And they did — but at a price.

The arduous labor required to transform Japan into a modern, industrialized country left its workers scarred. While they managed to surpass many Western economies and become the world's second largest economy after World War II, the workforce developed the habit of overworking.

Secondly, the collectivist culture prevalent at the time expected workers to prioritize the company over themselves. In many cases, this gave corporations the power to ignore their employees’ rights. The labor unions were also too weak to push for policy reforms in favor of the workers.

The third reason behind the Japanese trait of overworking is intertwined with the cultural expectation of "convenience". While 24/7 retail and delivery services are beneficial for customers, employees are stuck suffering with graveyard shifts to accommodate them.

This strict work ethic has long been embedded in the minds of many Japanese people. It has even caused tragic cases of karoshi in some cases. The next section tackles this issue in depth and how it impacts the Japanese work culture.

What does karoshi mean?


Literally translating to "death by overwork," karoshi is a product of extreme exhaustion, stress, and frustration from working. The term gained traction when the case of Matsuri Takahashi happened in 2015, but this phenomenon dates back decades.

The history of karoshi began in the early 20th century in Nagano prefecture. Multiple silk mill workers were forced to work almost 14 hours everyday, resulting in employee deaths due to the inhumane working conditions.

It was not until the latter half of 1970s when karoshi was coined by Japanese doctors who observed the rise in work stress-related deaths. The phenomenon became a social issue in the late 1980s, just in time for Japan's economic recession in the early 1990s.

The leading causes of karoshi are stroke, heart disease, and suicide. The Japan Times reported 96 deaths due to heart attacks and strokes from overworking in 2015. In the same year, the National Police Agency recorded 2,159 suicide cases due to work-related issues.

What are Japanese "Nomikais"?

One phenomenon that can be linked to the issue of karoshi is the Japanese nomikai (飲み会). It refers to company drinking parties, which are often compulsory to attend. While it is not as much of a pressing issue as karoshi, compulsory nomikai events are also known to contribute to stress.


Here's how it works: you’re already tired from work, excited to go home and rest. You’re finally about to go home... only to be stopped by your boss inviting you to join their drinking party.

Technically, it's your choice: you can join or decline the invitation. But in practice, it's often de-facto mandatory, as you're not able to refuse a request from a senior employee.

Many workers in Japan cannot easily relax after work because they are expected to attend nomikais to keep good ties with their fellow employees. And aside from work duties, some workers are saddled with other afterwork activities that take away time for them to rest, try new hobbies, or simply bond with their families and friends.

So... should you work in Japan?

Despite the issues mentioned above, Japan can be a great place to work!

There are an enormous number of companies in Japan. There are modern start-ups that don't share the issues of some older, legacy firms. There are also a growing number of foreign companies with branches in Japan, if you'd like to sidestep the Japanese work culture entirely.

Trust us when we say that working in Japan can be an amazing experience. Besides, the Japanese government and corporations are working towards improving their work culture.


According to CNBC, reducing the employees’ work hours is a top priority of the Japanese government and companies. It is now mandatory for workers to take at least five vacation days annually and a rest period is required before another work day.

In addition to that, the government also declared a new holiday called Mountain Day as an additional day of rest each year. They also launched a program called Premium Fridays, where companies are encouraged to let their employees leave at 3:00 PM every last Friday of the month.

In addition to these developments, an anti-karoshi law, the Work Style Reform Law was ratified on June 29, 2018. This policy mandates both the central and local governments to study the factors of overworking and spread information about it.

The law also ensures the accessibility of consultation programs and help for private sector support groups. It endeavors to lower the number of employees working 60+ hours per week and hopes that they take at least 70% of their paid holiday leave.

Now that you've seen the impressive progress in combating karoshi and changing the Japanese work culture, here are six advantages of working in Japan to better convince you to find a job in the country!

Reasons to work in Japan

Do not let the old Japanese work culture scare you away from working in this great country. Read through these six reasons why working in Japan can be a great decision, especially if your target is the tech sector.

1. Companies pay your transportation expenses

Japan recognizes that a majority of its workers use public transportation services to get to work. To ease the stress commuting, companies will pay these expenses for you. Doesn’t matter if you take the train, subway, or bus, they’ll pay for your transportation.

2. Health insurance

In Japan, it’s illegal to not have health insurance if you’re over 20 years old. Different types of insurance schemes cover services that are uncommon in other countries. That means in practice, everyone is covered by either Japan's national health care service or a private health care plan. Companies also pay for annual health checks for employees.

The quality of medical care in Japan is high, and prices are generally very reasonable.

3. Employment stability

One positive aspect of Japan's collectivist work culture is stability. It's very rare for Japanese companies to dismiss their employees unless they commit serious violoations like breaking the law.

While the work culture is changing, many companies still practice long-term employment for employees who want stability. Companies will go to great lengths to avoid having to fire or lay off employees.

4. Skills upgrading

This is another result of Japan's long-term employment history. Companies in Japan view their employees as assets, so they're willing to help people upgrade their skills. Many companies will support you in your training or studying as long as you are motivated and eager to learn.

In the tech industry, companies may handle all the fees of learning new tech skills or attending seminars. For foreigners, some companies are also willing to help you achieve fluency in the Japanese language by covering the fees needed for studying it.

5. Renewed business culture

Japanese work culture is slowly but surely turning towards a job-based employment system. Through this, the skills of the employees are more valued than their loyalty or seniority. Moving to this system is another big step away from the old work culture.

Well-known companies like Sony are joining this trend and more companies in the tech industry are expected to join as well.

6. High demand in the Tech Industry

Big news for the web and software engineers out there! Despite being known for innovation, Japan has a shortage of workers in the software industry. If you’re a tech specialist, Japan can be a great country to work!

These are just a few of the advantages of working in Japan, so we hope you'll consider them when deciding where to work. If you ever decide to work in the country, here is some information on how you can achieve a good work-life balance and avoid overworking.

Achieving work-life balance in Japan

Aside from knowing the tricky parts of navigating Japanese workplaces, achieving work-life balance is important to keep one’s sanity. Mayo Clinic gave five tips to help you achieve an equilibrium between life and work should you ever work in Japan.

1. Learn to say no

This is an important thing to remember when you work in Japan! Have respect for your seniors, but don’t be scared to turn down offers that will probably stress you out. Skipping a nomikai once won’t hurt, right? Just make up for it the next time you join!

2. Find a healthy hobby

Detach from your work every once in a while. Spend some time indulging in your favorite sport, game, or show to refresh. Don’t drown yourself with work all the time!

3. Discuss your options

If you feel like you can’t handle too much work or longer hours, discuss it with your employer. Try asking about flexible schedules, job sharing, and other things that can lighten your workload to avoid severe stress.

4. Allot a day for unwinding

Don’t be like a 24/7 convenience store! Recognize that you have a life to enjoy outside work. Set aside a day for yourself, for hanging out with friends, or bonding with your family. It’s a great way to relax and take your mind off stressful work duties!

5. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help

Mental health services should be made accessible by the Japanese government since it’s unaffordable for most people. However, if you have the means, consider talking to a professional to know how to properly deal with stress and other issues.

Otherwise, there are free services to help you like TELL.

In summary, Japan is a great option

Japanese work culture is known as exhausting and unhealthy, but things are changing. Japan's work culture is evolving — employees are working shorter hours and are encouraged to take vacations.

As an employee in Japan, you only need one good company to create a great life for yourself.

And trust us, there are a wide variety of modern companies in Japan — especially in the tech industry.


Japan is a country full of opportunities, and if you find yours then living here can be a rewarding experience. Take a chance on Japan and you'll get to experience one of the world's most unique cultures.

And as the Japanese government works together with companies to create a healthier culture, things will continue to improve more and more. Then, we hope Japan will shed its old negative stigma around working, and become one of the world's top destinations for foreign workers.

P.S check our list of vetted jobs for software developers if you're in IT and want to skip the research step and focus on companies with great work-life balance.


Japan Dev Team

This post was written by our Japan Dev editorial team.