During university, I was a busy guy. With classes, assignments, group projects and studies occupying most of my time during the school year, and odd jobs keeping me busy during the summer, I rarely found the time to travel.
Sure, I had time for the occasional cottage trip and the even rarer excursion out West to visit family in Calgary, but my entire post-secondary experience was spent within the borders of Canada.
It wasn’t until I graduated that I was able to save up some money and take a trip overseas to visit my stepbrother, who lives with his wife and son in southeastern Tokyo. I flew there for a 15-day vacation last March; it was a pretty big deal for me because I had never ventured outside North America—Puerto Rico was the farthest I had traveled.
Tokyo, where I spent the majority of my trip, is an extremely faced-paced city. People who live there work very long hours from Monday to Friday, and this often carries over into the weekend.
The work day doesn’t always end when you leave the office, either. It’s just another part of my stepbrother’s job to take coworkers and business contacts out for dinner or drinks at the end of the day. In fact, it is quite common for business meetings to be held at a bar or restaurant—schmoozing and work-related discussion outside of the workplace is a big part of white-collar employment in Japan.
My stepbrother also has to own a BlackBerry and stay connected with business contacts in his off-hours, so I frequently saw him BBM-ing and sending emails after he had returned home and opened a cold one.
It is also commonplace for Japanese businesspeople to work extremely hard for a number of intense years, until they have enough money saved to retire comfortably. Stress is a major factor in Tokyo and other densely populated cities in Japan, and suicide rates are among the highest in the world.
However, working hard until retirement has its rewards. Old age in Japan is primarily a time for relaxation and attending social events with family and friends. The elderly are very much respected in Japanese society, and it is traditional for younger members of an extended family to accommodate them. As a result, there are far fewer retirement homes in Japan than other parts of the world.
My trip to Tokyo lent me a new perspective on working life and got me thinking about where my life is likely headed.
I’m all for getting married and having a kid or two, and I think I could handle 50 hours of work per week if my job demanded it, but I certainly don’t want to work myself to death at a job that gives me zero downtime. My stepbrother is one of the lucky ones who works hard and makes a good living, but is still allowed plenty of quality time with his wife and son. There are many people out there, both in Japan and in Canada, who are not so fortunate.
So, to all the teenagers and young adults reading this, I offer the same advice my stepbrother gave me when I visited him in Tokyo: travel while you’re young, because you’ll find less and less chances to do so as life goes on.