Death By Overwork

Here’s an amazing fact:  Japan is, only now, looking to limit how much overtime employers can ask employees to work.  And, even more amazing, the first-ever proposal to limit overtime would set a cap at 100 hours per month.

p1010928Japan has long had a curious tradition of a slavish work ethic, with some employers measuring employee hours not by productivity — where Japanese workers trail Americans and others — but by raw hours worked, which the employers associate with qualities like loyalty and dedication.  So even though Japanese law has instituted a 40-hour work week, it is commonplace for workers to spend far more time than that at the office and on the job, with no governmental limit on how much “overtime” employees can be expected to put in.  The social pressure to commit to working crushing hours has even caused the Japanese to coin a word — karoshi — to refer to death from overwork.  Every year, hundreds of deaths from heart attacks, strokes, and suicides are attributed to karoshi, and a recent government survey determined that one in five Japanese companies have employees whose tendency to overwork puts them at risk.

It was a recent suicide, of a young employee of an advertising firm, that caused the Japanese government to propose the first-ever limitation on overtime.  But those who advocate true reform of the Japanese work culture scoff at a 100-hour-a-month limit as almost as outlandish as having no limit at all, because it means employers could routinely require employees to work more than 60 hours a week.  That’s ten hours a day, six days a week — not exactly the kind of restriction that is going to prevent people from suffering the mental and physical health effects of constant overwork.

The Japanese problem with karoshi is an example of how cultures can develop in radically different ways, imposing expectations that would be unimaginable elsewhere. How many countries and cultures have a problem with people routinely working themselves to an early grave?  And part of the problem is that there remain thousands of Japanese workers who accept the culture imperative to work like a dog and try to satisfy its demands, rather than just rejecting the unreasonable expectations and going somewhere where the work-life balance is a happier and healthier one.  You can impose government regulations, but at a certain level individuals have to stand up for themselves and act in their own best interests — cultural imperatives or not.

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Kitto Katsu

How does a strawberry maple Kit Kat sound to you?  Or a wasabi Kit Kat?  Or a “butter” Kit Kat?  (Admittedly, I don’t have a sweet tooth, and I don’t care for Kit Kats, but I have to say that the last one sounds especially disgusting.)

dsc02575All of those unusual flavors — and many, many more — are variations of Kit Kat that are available in Japan.  In that land across the Pacific, Kit Kat is one of the most popular candy bars around.  There are about 300 different varieties of the venerable wafer and chocolate bar that you’re supposed to snap apart and share with your friend, and each has its own brightly colored wrapper.  New flavors — like the single stick, dark chocolate, coated in gold leaf Kit Kat that was sold for a short time last December — are developed all the time, too.  Even more strikingly, every region of Japan has its own special flavor of Kit Kat that is sold only in that region.

Why is Kit Kat so popular in Japan?  Well, it’s undoubtedly a classic candy bar, but a lot of the popularity has to do with the name.  Kit Kat sounds a lot like kitto katsu, which is Japanese for “surely win” — an expression of good luck.  When Japanese schoolchildren are getting ready to take their tough, make-or-break college entrance exams, they can expect to get a supply of Kit Kats as exercises in positive thinking from their family and friends.

But purple sweet potato Kit Kats?  I guess it’s the thought that counts.

One Country’s Slow-Motion Suicide

The “replacement rate” a society must achieve to maintain its population is a matter of cold actuarial statistics:  an average woman must bear 2.1 children during her lifetime.  If that fertility rate is exceeded, a country’s population grows; if the replacement rate isn’t met, the country’s population declines.

According to tables published by the World Bank, fertility rates vary widely.  In Niger, for example, the fertility rate is 7.6.  In Japan, on the other hand, the fertility rate is 1.43 — far below the replacement rate and one of the lowest rates in the world.  And, in fact, Japan’s population is declining.  Last year, 1.27 million Japanese died, and only 1.001 million were born.  Such rates obviously aren’t sustainable long term.  They are particularly troubling if, as in Japan, the current system involves long-lived retirees receiving pensions funded by the tax payments of a shrinking pool of younger workers.  Again, cold statistics dictate that, some day, the financial crash must come if trends aren’t reversed.

Of course, cold statistics really don’t tell us the whole story when it comes to birth rates.  Why aren’t Japanese men and women getting together and having children, as they have since time immemorial?  A recent survey concluded that a big part of the procreation problem is what the Japanese call “herbivorous males” — men who have lost their “masculine confidence,” have eschewed the burdens of high-powered careers, have no interest in girlfriends or families, and are content to work at low-paying jobs and shop for recreation.  The survey also shows that many Japanese have lost interest in having sex and that even young married couples routinely go weeks and even months without it.

Why is this so?  It’s not a question born of prurient interest, but ultimately one of national survival.  After countless generations of human history in which a desire for intimacy has been a principal focus of personal interaction, why are people in countries like Japan losing interest in an activity that is essential to the survival of the species?  And how can the country change the dynamic?  It’s a crucial issue, because If the demographic trend isn’t reversed, Japan will continue to commit slow-motion suicide.

R.I.P. Louis Zamperini

We all hope to live lives that are full and interesting.  Louis Zamperini, who died last week at the ripe age of 97, sets a standard to which the rest of us can only aspire.  If you’ve read the best-selling book Unbroken:  A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, about Zamperini’s life, you know what I mean.

Zamperini was a juvenile delinquent, then a champion runner at USC, then a member of the fabled 1936 U.S. Olympic team that competed in Nazi Germany and saw Jesse Owens achieve immortality.  Then Zamperini fought nobly in World War II, was shot down over the Pacific, somehow survived weeks on a raft that floated hundreds of miles before reaching land on a Japanese-occupied island, and then lived through brutal treatment in a prison camp.  His story reads like the over-the-top plot of a movie, but it’s true — and the movie will be released later this year.

Leonard Pitts has written one of many appreciations of this fine man, who exemplified so many of the traits of the Americans known as The Greatest Generation.  A slightly different take on Zamperini’s life, and the role religion played in the “redemption” part of his story, can be found at National Review Online.  You can’t help but be inspired by the story of an average American who did extraordinary things — and you can’t help but wonder how many average Americans, put in the same circumstances, could have done the same.

Oh, No! There Goes Tokyo!

Godzilla is returning to the big screen next year.  The teaser trailer for the movie is out, and it looks like the film will have many of the elements that have made the Godzilla franchise a classic: a city laid waste, terrified running crowds, commuter rail cars ripped to smithereens — and Godzilla’s trademark shriek.

Of course, among the things that will be lacking are the stunt guy in the rubbery suit who portrayed Godzilla, the clearly fake buildings being stepped on and destroyed by the King of Monsters, and the cheesy special effects as Godzilla encountered and fought giant moths and other oversized and bizarre creatures.  One of the delights of the original Godzilla was the spliced-in footage of Raymond Burr playing a reporter covering the carnage caused by Godzilla’s emergence, which was added as an obvious afterthought in a studio effort to make the movie more palatable to American audiences.  All of that will be gone now, replaced by state of the art computer-generated images and devastation.

The Godzilla films have been interesting for a lot of reasons.  Godzilla helped to reintroduce Japan to America after World War II and led the way for the much more significant cultural and business interaction that was to come in later years.  Godzilla also tapped a core fear of atomic power in the post-nuclear age, and was the first true environmental disaster film.  And the enduring power of Godzilla himself became clear when, in later movies, Godzilla morphed from a mindless engine of destruction into a sensitive and sympathetic defender of Japan who was as much a victim of technology run amok as the poor wretches on the subway trains who were crushed in virtually every Godzilla movie.

And then one day Godzilla met Bambi in one of the greatest student films ever made.

Pepsi-Flavored Cheetos?

Apparently some people really relish the combination of Cheetos and Pepsi — so much so that the Frito-Lay Company is selling Pepsi-flavored Cheetos in Japan, and eventually could bring that combination to America.

It doesn’t sound very enticing to me, but I’m not partial to the taste of Pepsi.  According to the Los Angeles Times article linked above, the new product replaces the overpowering cheesiness of Cheetos with a Pepsi flavor instead.  In addition, some reviewers are saying that the taste goes overboard with the citrus element of Pepsi.

If that description is accurate, I think this new product misses the point.  Although I don’t eat Cheetos or similar “snack foods” anymore — my 56-year-old constitution is no longer capable of quickly breaking down such items, and instead simply and irrevocably deposits them on my waistline in the form of immutable belly fat — my recollection is that part of the pleasure of the Cheetos-Coke combination was first savoring the over-the-top cheesiness, then having that cut by the cola taste, and finally letting the cola soak into the Cheetos until you could smush the individual Cheetos nugget between your tongue and the roof of your mouth, allowing the cheese and cola combination to come flooding out.

In short, there was a sequencing of flavors issue, a texture issue, a combination of flavors issue, and then a tactile sensation issue, all rolled into proper consumption of Cheetos and a cola.  Just replacing the cheese flavor with a Pepsi flavor wouldn’t come close to replicating the real experience.  For that reason, I predict Pepsi-flavored Cheetos will end up in the great scrap heap of failed new products.

Chatting Up Astro Boy

The Japanese have come up with a solution for astronaut loneliness:  they’ve designed a talking robot that was sent up into space yesterday to serve as a companion for the Japanese astronaut who will be commanding the International Space Station later this year.  The robot, called Kirobo, is part of a study of how machines can interact emotionally with humans who are isolated.

Kirobo is 13 inches tall, is capable of various movements, and was modeled on the cartoon character Astro Boy.  Kirobo is programmed to communicate in Japanese and to recognize the face of astronaut Kochi Wakata, so Kirobo can greet Wakata when they meet up at the International Space Station.  The robot will record all of his conversations with Wakata and also may serve as a conduit for messages from the control room.  Kirobo’s designer says he hopes the robot will serve as a kind of mediator between human and machine.

The Japanese are constantly breaking new ground in robotics, and Kirobo is just the latest development.  Still, I wonder about the underlying concept.  Our technology has progressed to the point where we routinely communicate with machines, through keyboards and voice commands, but an emotional connection just doesn’t happen. No one considers Siri their BFF.

Will a lonely astronaut, fresh from a hard day’s work on the ISS, really want to have a deep conversation with a doll-like invention that looks like Astro Boy?  Would Mission Control be more concerned if the astronaut didn’t connect emotionally with Kirobo — or if he did?  Is talking to a tiny machine really that much emotionally healthier than talking to yourself?