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Japanese literally working themselves to death

Credit: Shuji Kajiyama via AP

In America, it's fairly common to hear people describe their desire to have a better work-life balance. Countless books have been written on the subject, and seminars that claim to have the key to managing the demands of one's job and life abound. That's not the case everywhere, though, and Japan offers a startling contrast. As the Washington Post's Anna Fifield writes, "In Japan, there's not even a term for 'work-life balance.' What there is, though, is a word for 'death by overwork.' It's 'karoshi,' and it's considered such an inevitable result of Japan's notoriously grueling work culture that it's hardly even discussed."

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Japan's workers, often still in their 20s and 30s, die each year by work-induced heart attack, stroke, or suicide. Twelve-hour days are considered the norm and individuals often hesitate to clock their overtime for fear that it will result in negative evaluations from their superiors. As a result, "service overtime"—in which the employers receive countless hours of free labor—are commonplace. Vacation days are seldom used for the same reason.

The general work culture, one borne largely from the country's economic difficulties in the 1990s, and the relatively weak labor unions place enormous stress on individual workers to go along with the system. Moreover, there isn't nearly as much mobility within the Japanese economy as is found in many Western countries, meaning that workers often can't simply leave for a job that will treat them better.

Government programs encouraging employees to take their vacation and aimed at reducing the number of workers who regularly clock more than sixty hours a week could help. However, as Koji Morioka, an emeritus professor at Kansai University, notes, a lasting solution will only come when they "change the overtime culture and create the time for family and hobbies. Long hours are the root of all evil in Japan. People are so busy they don't even have the time to complain."


God made us to need rest. He modeled it for us from the beginning, in part, because he knew of its importance as well as the difficulty we would have in taking it. One of the greatest fallacies in our culture, and even more so in those like Japan, is that rest time is wasted time. When we focus on what we give up—income, productivity, etc.—rather than what we gain, it can be easy to fall prey to that misunderstanding. Scripture offers us a helpful guide to this issue in Luke 10:38–42.

In this passage, we find Jesus stopping at the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany. Luke begins by describing how Martha opened her home to the Lord and went about making sure that everything about his visit went according to plan. The Greek word used to describe her activity is diakonian—the same term Luke uses to describe the ministry of the early believers in Acts. Martha was working hard to do legitimately good and beneficial things, but she had become so focused on taking care of others that she neglected to take care of herself.

Luke contrasts Martha's approach with that of Mary, who simply sat at Jesus' feet and listened to him teach. When Martha asks Jesus to send Mary back to help her, Christ simply replies, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed . . . Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:41–42).

Notice that Jesus never said that Martha's work was wrong or futile, but that Mary's decision to spend some time resting at his feet was better. Martha's mistake wasn't the work she was doing but in prioritizing that work to the neglect of spending time with Jesus. I don't know about you, but that's a mistake I make far too often.

God created us to need a balance between work and rest. Both are good and both are needed in order to live according to his will. However, maintaining that balance, especially in light of the constant demands for our time and energy, can be a perpetual battle. Perhaps that's why God specifies that we set aside one day each week to stop and be with him (Exodus 20:8–11).

In a world where such rest is seemingly incomprehensible to many, our decision to take it will stand out and provide one more way for people to see the benefit of God's presence in our lives. As a result, that balance will make us more productive in our work and more effective in our witness. So how balanced is your life today?

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