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Work, stress, and health in Japan

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 4 July 2018

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk

“Because of my job it is not easy to feel Im living a healthy life. If you have a stressful life or stressful job it is a cause of ill-health. Work gives you stress but you need work to be healthy.”

This quote is from Tomoko san, a teacher who is near the age of retirement but is not considering retiring any time soon. She works six days per week and lives alone, her adult daughter living in another city. We met in the botanical garden and, after feeding turtles, we chatted overlooking a small lake and ate rice crackers that she had brought. We talked about health and in particular its relationship to stress which has surfaced as the most commonly cited source of ill-health in my conversations with people so far. She works hard and acknowledges that work stress, particularly social stress from colleagues and parents of students, causes ill-health. But at the same time she recognises that routine and purposeful work keeps her healthy. Her quote above is interesting because it captures this idea of work as both the main cause and prevention of ill-health, expressed in different ways by all of my informants. The routine and stimulation provided by work, especially of interacting with younger colleagues, has been cited as a way that people feel like they might retain their youth and stay healthy.

Diminished mental health, widely recognised by my informants under the umbrella term “stress”, does not appear to be as much of a priority to address as bodily health and fitness. Work and social relations are simply accepted as stressful because of a deference to hierarchical structures within social life. Colleagues often may not leave work until after their boss and then, if they are required to go drinking together, they also cannot leave the bar until their boss wants to. If a boss is insensitive to the exhaustion of their colleagues, this is known as power hara or power harassment. This kind of intense pressure from social bonds is often accepted as a source of stress and ill-health which people can do little about. As one informant told me with a sense of resignation “we (Japanese) have a lot of stress in daily life”. Unsurprisingly the mindfulness trend seen in Europe is also popular in Japan. However one of my informants said that mindfulness is just trendy and that people don’t really practice such activities in their daily lives. Japanese cultural activities such as tea ceremony and flower arranging (ikebana) are also supposed to be a form of paying attention and mindfulness, but as someone told me “ordinary people want to learn (such things) because its cool. For us, the mind is not so important, lifestyle is much more important. Mental health is not visible, whereas your body is, so people easily forget to take care of their mental health. How we look is very important.” One woman in her 40s confirmed these sentiments when she told me that the invisibility of mental health means that people often ignore warning signs and then reach burn-out stage. This is what happened to her while working as a designer, a job which often required 14-hour days. She subsequently quit the profession entirely and is now working as an administrator for a medium-sized company, where she feels less pressure to work excessively and therefore her health has returned.

Another person I have been getting to know is Hiroshi san, a 66-year-old nurse who also works 6 days per week. He tried retirement for 3 months but found that he wasn’t writing the novel he had planned to write, and instead felt anxious that others were doing more than him and being more productive, so he returned to work. For him, his peers are rivals who he feels in direct competition with, and retirement means dropping out of the race. Other people have told me that they don’t want to retire because it’s not healthy, they will just end up watching tv all day long, which they feel will shorten their lives. Work and “ikigai”, or purpose in life, are so bound up with health in Japan, yet in every conversation I’ve had people cite work as their main cause of stress and stress as their main cause of ill-health. This is a paradox I wish to further explore in the coming months.

Author: Laura Haapio-Kirk

Note: all names used are pseudonyms.