Time Off and Japan: A Culture of Leisure that Lost Its Way
Foreword to the Japanese version of the international bestseller Time Off
I could feel the excitement in the room. Everyone’s faces had lit up, eyes sparkling, dreaming of lives filled with vitalizing leisure, supercharged productivity, and a pervasive sense of joy and calm. The general consensus seemed to be “this is amazing, I want to live and work like this!”
But, after a brief pause, I saw the smiles turn into frowns, and over and over again I started hearing the same sentiment: “It would never work for us.”
The situation I am describing took place in 2019. As John, Mariya and I were working on the initial draft of Time Off, we regularly tested the ideas and stories we were developing for the book by presenting them in front of various audiences. On this particular occasion I was speaking to a group of technologists, creatives, and producers at one of Japan’s big advertising agencies (notorious for its overwork culture).
As I was telling them about how ceaseless busyness not only stands in the way of a fulfilling life but often also prevents true productivity — backing up my claims with academic research as well as real-world examples and case-studies — my core message clearly resonated with the group. Everyone understood the facts and could clearly see how others have implemented these ideas into their lives with great success.
Yet everyone seemed to come to the same conclusion: “It’s not for us.”
The ad agency professionals I spoke to on that day were not the only ones who shared that sentiment. As I spoke to more and more of my Japanese friends and colleagues about the topic I could see the same cycle repeat almost every single time: A joyful and dreamy expression of yearning quickly giving rise to a shrug and a wistful sense of resignation, embodied by that recurring remark: “It won’t work for us.”
I quickly came to understand that the “for us” was largely referring to “here in Japan.” And I also came to realize that it was not that people believed the science and practical tools I described did not apply in Japan, or weren’t needed here. They had few doubts about this. No, the problem was of a different nature.