Japanese people are masochists. It's not necessarily that they work harder. They are just at work for so many hours. We live across the street from my (Josie's) school so we see my co-workers arrive as early as 7:30am and leave as late as 10pm or so. This is a picture of school from our upstairs window. Teachers make appearances on Saturdays, Sundays and during holidays like Golden Week. They come in early even if there is nothing to do and they'll stay late with another co-worker who has to stay and finish work. This all falls under "voluntary overtime". They work sick so as not to take time off. Sometimes work makes them sick like one of my English teachers who has suddenly lost the hearing in her right ear (the doctors say because of stress and working too much). They have to coach sports and oversee after school activities and don't get paid any more for it. They complain about this system but don't try to change it.
Here's the fundamental cultural difference in the work culture as far as I see it: The Japanese don't work in order to support their personal life and interests. Work is, in and of itself, the end goal. Being a cog in the machinery is it. Every school/company is like its own village with its own song, logo, uniforms, etc. They take care of you in many ways. You bond with your co-workers during those long hours. You get full physical check ups at school (so far I've had an x-ray and given blood and urine samples).
In return for your loyalty, dedication and sacrifice of your personal life, you get....to be a part of the group, I guess? This is what doesn't make sense to my Western mind. You don't necessarily get a promotion or a bigger bonus than anyone else and you don't get a trip or a watch or anything. In fact, as far as I can tell, the longer you work there the more responsibilities you are given. Especially if you are young-ish, single and without kids--they just keep piling it on. The teachers with kids must never see them. The single teachers complain they don't have time or know where to find a partner.
I was reading recently that work is seen as an act of virtue in Japan whereas in the West it is seen more as a necessary evil for sustaining one's personal life. What's the point in working so hard to create a clean, orderly, efficient society and manufacture state of the art products if no one has the time to relax and enjoy life?
Maybe this incongruency is more apparent to me because I've spent so much time in Latin cultures (Spain and Central/South America) where people work very hard but also prioritize family, friends and fun. When we ask Japanese teachers what they did last weekend the answer is usually that they worked, went home to see their family, worked on their plot of land, etc. They are always exhausted. It's depressing. John takes the train to work every day and says people are asleep on the way to work and on the way home. They're like zombies. If creativity isn't stifled because of the consensus culture and group think pressures, it's destroyed by pure exhaustion. This system makes for pretty uninteresting people who only have their work to talk about. However, once you have broken them of that innate desire to live for yourself and indoctrinated them into the group mentality (starting when they're school children), you have ideal workers.
I feel very grateful to be a gaijin (literally, outside person). I'm not a full-fledged teacher, just an assistant and hired through my private company. I have a contract that dictates when I start and end work, my vacations, etc. I don't get pressured to stay late. Especially because I don't understand Japanese, there are many meetings it just doesn't make sense for me to attend.
It's also hard to feel too bad for them. They do it to themselves, don't they? If a few teachers decided to switch things up, the group mentality could shift, it seems. They get vacation/sick time; they could use it. They could work more efficiently and leave at a reasonable hour-- no one's physically holding them there.
I just wish I didn't feel so guilty that I have a husband, a personal life, hobbies and vacation plans. Then again, these are all just first impressions. We've only been here for 4 months. Hopefully, I'll find a more nuanced view of work culture as I continue to learn more.