“ Me, lazy? I work like a Japanese beaver ! ” that is what our beloved Homer Simpson replied to his wife Marge after she made the remark that he was lazy at work. We laugh. We get the irony. Homer is super lazy, Japanese are super productive. Like the creators of the Simpsons, most likely we assume that Asians are efficient. You may have even heard the expression “efficient Asian” and think that it is a given. Indeed, from what we can observe in our media, and what we can pick from our collective knowledge (as Westerners), we assume that Asians – including Asian Americans/Canadians – are all highly productive, efficient, and math prodigies. We, lazy Westerners, should take example on them.
In reality, Asians are no more productive or efficient than Westerners. The efficient and productive Asian is not only a stereotype, it is also very discriminatory, even racist. This begs the question: why do we (Westerners) almost systematically make this assumption?
Of course, there is the human tendency of easy generalization, but Trytten, Lowe & Walden (2012) cite the Model Minority Stereotype to explain this attitude towards Asians:
One of the most widely acknowledged and studied stereotypes of Asians/AsianAmericans is the Model Minority Stereotype (MMS) (Choi & Lahey, 2006; Lee, 1996). The MMS describes As/AsAms as the epitome of assimilation into U.S. society, using hard work, intelligence, high educational attainment, and economic success to overcome the challenges of discrimination and recent immigration. (p. 440)
Thus, in our Westerners minds, it is a given: Asians have to work a lot more harder because we assume that somehow, it is a mechanism to cope with their “inferiority” not only as immigrants, but also on a global scale. This mindset is flawed. It is racism and does not reflect reality at all.
For the scope of this post though, I will focus only on Japan, and on productivity/efficiency in terms of work/employee. On Japan because, as I will explain further on, it is mainly from its society that the stereotype emerged, and work because that is generally what comes first in mind when we make our assumptions. Also, when I say “us” or “we” from now on, I mean Westerners. With that in mind, let’s move on and have a look at the origins of the stereotype.
The root cause
To understand how the stereotype emerged, we need to understand the icon of Japanese work philosophy that is the kaizen. Wikipedia gives a good definition:
Kaizen is Japanese for « improvement » or « change for the best », refers to philosophy or practices that focus upon continuous improvement of processes in manufacturing, engineering, and business management.
In other words, kaizen is a mindset – or philosophy – on how to achieve optimal productivity. How it became a Japanese philosophy is as interesting as it is ironic. It was actually taught by an American statistician by the name of Edward Deming. Kanji and Asher (1993) summarize well how kaizen came to, and got embedded into the Japanese mindset:
In the aftermath of the Second World War, American industry, basking in success, did not want to listen to Dr Edward Deming’s quality philosophy. In 1950, he wassent to shattered post-war Japan by the MacArthur Government[…] He spoke to some 100 Japanese senior managers about his quality philosophy. At the same time, Dr Joseph Juran was also stressing to the Japanese the customer’s point of view of a product’s fitness for use, and was advocating extensive training and hands-on management to satisfy customer’s requirements.
The Japanese industrialists listened to Deming and Juran and learned from their teaching. The result was that they captured markets all over the world. Within months, productivity increases werebeingreported in Japan; within years such increases were commonplace. The Japanese miracle had been truly launched. (p. 9)
As you can see, kaizen is actually an American concept. But nonetheless, Japanese industrialists turned it into a dogma (hence the Japanese term kaizen), and the Japan’s society as a whole followed-in. Most Westerners think that it is a Japanese concept, therefore, assume that it is natural for them.
There’s also another factor that, combined with kaizen, contributed to ignite Japan’s high productivity (and their reputation of a highly productive nation): that is pride. As Matsumoto (2002) puts it:
Japanese pride required a strong and united front against the American occupation forces, who appeared to want to have their way with Japanese society and culture. Thus, Japan set out on a mission to rebuild and transform its economy into a power to be reckoned with. (p. 104)
Pride is a very powerful factor in one’s motivation, and with the kaizen, it turned out to be an explosive combination. The whole world, and mostly the United States, got taken off-guard. In the following thirty years, Japan set out to become the second most powerful nation (and even flirted with number one for a short time).
And that is when the US – the rest of the world even – got scared, and Japan began to captivate not only scholars, economists and the corporate world, but the media as well, which are very efficient at creating a lasting impact in our subconscious. Generally speaking, stereotypes are promulgated by the media.
Especially from the 60’s until the mid 90’s, almost everything you saw or heard about Japan was how marvelously efficient and productive they were. There are countless examples of stereotyped – racist even – depictions of Japanese as efficient drones in the media. Matsumoto (2002) tells us how Japanese company workers were depicted as “samurai in suits” in articles about Japanese Economics and business management, and that this image was “promulgated by almost every type of communication and information resource that exists – scholarly and popular books, academic journal writing, business and practical books, movies, magazines, television and the like.” (p. 17).
If it was not about karate or samurais, almost everything about Japan showed an image of a society of working drones that mass produced all the cool stuff. Cinema, in particular, systematically depicted Japanese in the same fashion.
Take Takashi Toshiro, the Japanese student in Revenge of the Nerds. You cannot have a more obvious stereotype than that. It is downright offensive. But from all the movies and books about Japan, Micheal Crichton’s Rising Sun (1993) was the one that really nailed the stereotype in our minds, because it reached an even wider audience. Matsumoto (2002) also cites Rising Sun as an example of stereotyped portrayal:
One relatively recent film, Rising Sun, portrays the Japanese as doing whatever they can for the sake of the company – even covering up a murder and keeping special housing for mistresses[…] The movie depicts the Japanese workers as rigid, disciplined, austere, and all-obedient to the elder statesman chairman of the board.
Somehow, if you have a Japanese in a novel, movie, or tv show, it has to be a socially awkward, austere and workaholic. Like with anything else with the media, by being inundated with this kind of stereotyped depictions, it becomes imprinted in our subconscious and creates an everlasting impression. Though as for almost everything that has to do with fiction, the reality is something else completely.
Yet, there is another factor that exacerbated the stereotype: the concept of salaryman. In Japan, an employee of a company is typically a salaryman, which in itself reeks of stereotyped allusions. Matsumoto (2002) describes the salaryman as follows:
This term generally calls forth a stereotypic image of an individual who has sacrificed his (usually male) life for the sake of the company. He spends long hours at the office, often working late into the night, and doesn’t hesitate to come to work on the weekends, sacrificing personal and family time. He commutes hours everyday to his job and works diligently and loyally, for the sake of the company and the Japanese economy as a whole. (p. 67)
Matsumoto (2002) states as well that this image became a stereotype, and that “attitudes about and stereotypes of the Japanese salaryman are not only by Westerners but by the Japanese themselves. (p.68) He then continues:
The focus on Japan’s work ethic, on the salaryman’s perseverance and fortitude, is undoubtedly a remnant from both classic and contemporary views of Japanese culture and society. (p. 68)
As they say, a happy worker is a productive worker. Then, Japanese, as diligent and obedient as they are, should be very happy with this lifestyle. In today’s reality, it is not so.
Matsomoto analysed data from an EPA study about Japanese satisfaction at work, and came to the conclusion that Japanese workers are actually quite dissatisfied with their job:
Taken altogether, the stereotype of the Japanese salaryman who is willing to sacrifice himself and his family, who is happy to be a worker bee for the sake of the company and country, and who does not relish rewards based on individual achievements is more myth than reality, especially among younger workers. (p. 74)
The image of the diligent salaryman just took a solid beating. It means that Japanese do not want to sacrifice their life for the sake of a company as we think they do – even as themselves think they do.
But this is where the paradox lies: Japan are stuck into the mindset of the kaizen, the “good ol’ days” of breakneck economic development, trying to keep the high-productivity lifestyle of that era. According to Yashiro Naoshiro (2011), Japanese firm are “notorious for their long working hours” and he cites a study from the International Labour Organization, which states that the proportion of employees working over 50 hours a week was 28.1% in Japan compared with 20.0% in the United States, 5.7% in France, and 5.3% in Germany (ILO 2004). (p. 144).
This is why we still assume that Japanese are still highly productive and efficient. Twenty-eight percent for Japan versus twenty for the US. Then, Japanese should be more productive. Again, reality differs.
In their article, Koshal, Gupta, Koshal, Akkihal, & Mine (2008), compare Japan’s economy as a whole today as being the same as of the US economy in the seventies, in a sense that it is regressing:
Today, Japanese society is much different and the lifetime employment system has also changed […] Factors responsible for this change are the sluggish economy, a rise in the average age of the Japanese worker, an increase in the size of the educated labor force, competition for managerial positions, a fast changing society influenced by Western culture, the growing number of emancipated women, and a shrinking local blue-collar worker population, thus resulting in dependence on alien labor. (p. 185)
If eight percent more Japanese than US employees work fifty plus hours, how come their output is lower? No human can be productive if unhappy. Today, as you could see from the last citation, Japanese, too, struggle with their work-life balance. Like any other nations, they face challenges – maybe even more severe than the US and Canada. They work more hours simply because they are stuck with the old post-war mentality. They are surely not working drones as we, Westerners, have always assumed they are.
In my introduction, I stated that Asians – focusing on Japanese – are not necessarily more productive nor efficient than Westerners. Thinking that they are by default – the “efficient Asian” – is discriminatory and racist. I asked the question why we make the assumption about the “efficient Asian”. The Model Minority Stereotype explains our attitude, but not necessarily how this stereotype came to and the reality. For that, I demonstrated that firstly, as the result of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery, the kaizen philosophy combined with pride laid the foundation for their high productivity and efficiency, which gave them a reputation that became a stereotype. Secondly, the media fueled and promulgated that stereotype of Japanese as diligent and obedient workers in our collective consciousness. Finally, I pointed that although it may seem like Japanese are very productive, the reality is far from what we assume, and that in fact, they are a lot like us.
For any nationality, stereotypes and assumptions are pervasive and to be taken with extreme caution, because they are most likely to be unfounded and to be discriminatory, even racist.
Kanji, G. K., & Asher, M. (1993). Understanding total quality management. Total Quality Management, 9-17.
Koshal, M., Gupta, A. K., Koshal, R. K., Akkihal, C., & Mine, Y. (2008). Changing Demographic of Labor Force and Productivity: A Case of Japan. Perspectives On Global Development & Technology, 7(2), 175-187. doi:10.1163/156914908X318500
Matsumoto, D. R. (2002). The new Japan: Debunking seven cultural stereotypes. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.
Trytten, D. A., Lowe, A., & Walden, S. E. (2012). « Asians are Good at Math. What an Awful Stereotype »: The Model Minority Stereotype’s Impact on Asian American Engineering Students. Journal Of Engineering Education, 101(3), 439-468.
Yashiro, N. (2011). Myths about Japanese employment practices: An increasing insider- outsider conflict of interests. Contemporary Japan – Journal Of The German Institute For Japanese Studies, Tokyo, 23(2), 133-155. doi:10.1515/cj.2011.008