Living on Tokyo Time

| January / February 2003

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 hours.

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 publication.

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