It wasn’t long after I moved to Japan that it really began to strike me how diligently Japanese did their jobs. The Japanese are known for a strong work ethic, but seeing everyone from doctors to store clerks continually put forth 110% was eye opening. I asked a friend of mine why convenience store clerks, who couldn’t possibly be that into their jobs, would work so hard? He told me with little hesitation “Don’t you see a shortcoming in your American way of thinking? Why would you dislike your job? Why would you want to be unhappy and frustrated instead of going home at the end of the day and saying ‘the store sparkled today because of my hard work’ or ‘those customers got what they wanted because of me, I worked hard today!'”
This perspective was a big revelation for me. As an American I feel like I’ve always been encouraged to want more, aim for something higher, and always look for that next big step. While a lot can be said for this, left unchecked this attitude can create a perpetual sense of job dissatisfaction. The Japanese on the other hand tend to encourage pride in one’s actual work more than a focus on one’s position. I met many Japanese who showed pride at working for a good company or doing a necessary task, as opposed to dissatisfaction with not having a better job position. I’ll never forget how proud a Japanese school teacher friend of mine was of his son when he got a position in the business office of a large grocery store – something that I myself wouldn’t have been particularly excited about back then.
The roots of these perspectives on work can be found in culture. The Buddhist influence in Japanese culture contributes to a world view that enlightenment comes from a life of mindfulness and toil, and that dissatisfaction and suffering is caused by desire. So you need to eliminate desire in order to get rid of dissatisfaction and suffering in your life. In contrast, the Christian influence on thought found in many Western cultures contributes to a perspective that life is temporary and that there are greater things to come. It’s not too difficult to see these undercurrents of thought mirrored in their respective cultures’ attitudes towards work.
While we may be influenced by cultural ways of thinking without realizing it, we are in no way bound by them. When I became aware of the Japanese perspective I saw a lot of value in it and began to adopt it. Granted, it was easier to do so being surrounded by people who shared this attitude. When I returned to the US in the lagging post-2008 economy and restarted my career in Information Technology, I was only able to find a position lower than what I held in the past. But I don’t look at the job I don’t have, I look at what I’m doing. That helps me to work hard every day, which will bring advancement and success far more than dissatisfaction or desire alone ever will.