Life Out of Balance, or The Story of a Boy with One Less Tooth

Oyashirazu (親知らず), the Japanese word for wisdom teeth, is an etymological gem. The word  roughly translates to ‘without the parents knowing’, and nobody’s quite sure why, although it’s probably because your wisdom teeth emerge after you move out of your family home. It’s such an elegant, lyrical word.

Wisdom teeth, however, are not lyrical or elegant. They’re malicious, pain-dispensing little fuckers. They serve no discernable purpose, and today I had one of them ripped out of my face forever. The tooth hadn’t even fully emerged from its gummy chrysalis, and yet it had the temerity to throw a strop and get inflamed. The pain came on quickly and was intense, and I had to take an urgent trip to the dentist, where I admittedly did get to use some Japanese which I haven’t had much need for, such as ‘my lower right wisdom tooth is swollen and everything hurts and please freeze half my face so I can’t feel anything anymore’. The dentist was quick, reassuring and methodical, with the minimum of justified tutting about my teeth; but I also had to pay through the nose for a sick note, to justify my day off work. Oh, the indignity.

The school’s response to this wasn’t ideal. I effectively received a brusque reminder to plan any future medical emergencies more conveniently so that they wouldn’t impact on my work. I can’t help but feel that this reflects misplaced priorities.

Oddly, I’m not about to launch into a tirade against the eikaiwa system, though- my school in many ways has an appreciation of work-life balance which is lacking elsewhere. I think that the prioritisation of attendance over quality of work or well-being is an all-too-common problem in Japanese workplaces. Just past the two month mark, I’m no expert on the workings of Japanese business, but some things you can’t help but notice.

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It’s probably not news to you that Japan has issues with work-life balance. You’ve likely seen stories on the news about karoshi; drained Tokyo businessmen suffering death by overwork. This is surely a real and frightening phenomenon, but the reality for most people is more understated. The fact is that while Japan has a high GDP, relative equality and a high standard of living, all of this is achieved at the cost of hours of (usually unpaid) overtime, and comparatively few holidays.


To give a few examples: one of my students came to me for a lesson on a Sunday afternoon. I asked them about their weekend, and they told me they’d been working thirteen days in a row because ‘the company is busy right now’. Another student had left their first job because they were leaving the house at 8am every weekday, and getting home at midnight. A third grumbled that Japanese workers are ‘slaves’ who can’t challenge unrealistic work demands. You can imagine what it’s like for hospital doctors, who are overworked everywhere.

School mentally prepares people for this life, as well. It’s not unusual for students in the later years of high school to spend several hours a day at juku, or ‘cram school’, during the summer holidays. Students in high school often ‘retire’ from their sports and arts clubs to toil in these dubious exam factories. This tires students out (again, I’ve witnessed this first hand), and I’m less than convinced that it’s the pathway to exam success- or future happiness.

I’m probably unusual. While I inevitably clock in several hours of unpaid overtime each week, for a teacher my additional workload is pretty light. Doubtless it pales in comparison to that of most school teachers in the United Kingdom, who also don’t get paid extra for their troubles. Even so, if I didn’t enjoy my job, I think I’d burn out pretty quickly.


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Admittedly, it’s easy to criticise without truly understanding. Not everybody works sixty-hour weeks. Most people I meet seem to enjoy their jobs, and get a sense of fulfilment out of them. I also get the sense that work friends perhaps forge deeper and more meaningful bonds than elsewhere. Employees might not get huge holiday allowances, but people seem to go on comfortable vacations quite often, whether to Okinawa or Hawai’i (the big two destinations), France or Italy, Thailand or Indonesia. The wage gap between CEOs and workers is smaller here, too, although it’s growing.

You can really feel the social cohesion created by hard work, too. The flipside of working hard is that you can expect people around you to work hard too, to cook delicious food, staff entertainment venues, keep the city clean and generally make your free hours more pleasant. I’m sure that a culture of hard work contributes to litter-free streets, and great bars and restaurants. If people work hard, they play hard, too, and the izakaya, bars and clubs of Nagarekawa are open till the early hours.


Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel something is wrong. I appreciate that there are benefits to a culture of hard work, but I wonder if productivity is really that much improved by exhausted office workers glued to their desks for hours of overtime. I hope it’s a problem that Japan can address in its own way, without losing its sense of harmony and inner logic.



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