Iwate is a small backwater prefecture in Japan that, for years, was struggling economically, trying to catch up to buzzing Tokyo's standard of living. Until in a daring move, Governor Hirova Masuda told his fellow citizens to give up the rat race altogether. In 2001, he launched the nationwide ad campaign "We don't make an effort in Iwate", which now runs every year and has become wildly popular--even the business cards of Iwate's government employees feature the new motto.

"In Tokyo, people are chased by speed, and life consists of working, eating and sleeping," said Masuda whose goal for Iwate residents is to be content with their wooden houses, leave work early in the evening, spend time with their families and enjoy nature walks.

Japan is known worldwide as a country of hard workers. As the Wall Street Journal put it in a June article, "Opposing effort in Japan is as bizarre as disparaging freedom in America." Just recently, the Oxford English Dictionary Online added the Japanese word karoshi to its vocabulary, which means "death brought on by overwork or job-related exhaustion."

Overexertion at the job is an epidemic problem in Japan. The Asia Pacific Management Forum (APMF) reported in 2002 that "a liaison council of attorneys established... to monitor deaths from overwork estimated in 1990 that over 10,000 people were dying each year from karoshi." The practices of the Japanese Production Management system have intensified the workload dramatically: Night shifts, increased scheduled and unscheduled overtime, holiday work, unpaid "voluntary" work for suggestion programs, formal and informal functions after work, homework assignments, and long commutes in crowded trains are the rule. According to APMF, most karoshi victims put in more than 100 hours unpaid overtime per month. Their habitually frantic work pace leaves managers incapable of relaxing; when they do take time off, "they are so wound up that not working leaves them disoriented and suffering from serious stress."

For many, the Iwate model seems to be the remedy to the karoshi ailment. The "We don't make an effort" campaign has not only taught the locals to take it easy--it has also drawn many strained city dwellers who want to convert to the simple life. The governor's initiative has been met with overwhelming approval--last year, he was reelected for the third time, with a majority vote of 88%.

Even though carried to extremes in that country, high work stress is not just a Japanese phenomenon. Amidst the hustle and bustle of corporate America, a touch of 'Iwate spirit' certainly wouldn't hurt us.

Posted 11-15-2004 12:58 AM by Doug Casey
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