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
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 inYamagata,Japan. Reprinted from
The Salt Journal (Fall 2001), which recently ceased
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