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.