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    Living on Tokyo Time

    It’s fair to say that Japanese people are un-believably busy.
    Working 10 hours a day, and often coming in on days off, they
    rarely take a vacation of more than three or four days. A straight
    week is a hedonistic luxury. Students have less than a month for
    summer vacation, and even then they have all kinds of assignments
    to do.

    Watching people live like this, with almost no time for
    themselves, makes an American like me wonder why more of them don’t
    throw themselves under subway trains. But I seem to have far more
    anxiety about free time than my Japanese friends do–even though,
    compared to them, I have much more of it. Why doesn’t this
    cradle-to-grave, manic scheduling bother them?

    A lot of Westerners make the glib assumption that Japanese
    people are simply submissive, unoriginal, or masochistic enough to
    put up with such a punishing system. I don’t think that’s it. In
    Japan, time is measured in the same hours and minutes and days as
    anywhere else, but it is experienced as a fundamentally different
    phenomenon. In the West, we save time, spend time, invest time,
    even kill time–all of which implies that it belongs to us in the
    first place. We might find ourselves obliged to trade huge chunks
    of our time for a steady salary, but most of us resent this as
    something stolen from us, and we take it for granted that our spare
    hours are none of our teachers’ or bosses’ business.

    The Japanese grow up with a sense of time as a communal
    resource, like the company motor pool. If you get permission, you
    can borrow a little for your own use, but the main priority is to
    serve the institution–in this case, society as a whole. Club
    activities, overtime, drinks with the boss, and invitations to the
    boring weddings of people you hardly know are not seen as intruding
    on your free time–they are the shikata ga nai (nothing you
    can do about it) duties that turn the wheels of society. “Free”
    time (hima) is something that only comes into existence
    when these obligations have all been fulfilled. This is nicely
    borne out by an expression my boss uses whenever he leaves work a
    little early: chotto hima morau (“I’m going to receive a
    little free time”).

    Though I can’t pretend I like living on a Japanese schedule, I
    try hard not to make judgments. Oku ga fukai–things are
    more complicated than they appear. The Japanese sacrifice their
    private time to society, but in return they get national health
    insurance, a wonderful train system, sushi, the two thousand
    temples of Kyoto, and traditional culture so rich that every
    backwater village seems to have its own unique festivals, seasonal
    dishes, legends, and even dialect. All of which are invaluable
    social goods that I would not trade for a lifetime of free

    Lynnika Butler, a Texan by birth, has spent most of her 20s
    in Japan, where she is an English teacher, community newsletter
    editor, and occasional translator and interpreter. She and her
    husband currently reside with a group of jazz musicians in
    Yamagata,Japan. Reprinted from
    The Salt Journal (Fall 2001), which recently ceased

    Published on Oct 9, 2007


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