Sample chapter: The Japanese Workplace and Emile Durkheim

Book is now available via


The Japanese Workplace and Emile Durkheim

The workplace is the most ubiquitous and important of the group structures in Japan which create social order and I think it is worth taking a look at the Japanese workplace through a Durkheimian lens.

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) established sociology as a social science and an academic discipline. His works dealt with the problems of crime, suicide, the education system, the law, and religion. His ground-breaking social study of suicide in particular, utilising statistical data for the first time, is still taught to first-year sociology students in universities around the world.

His overarching concern was social order and social solidarity. Durkheim worried that modernising forces were the cause of social disintegration. As people moved into cities and lived away from extended family, he perceived that individuals were becoming isolated and too disconnected from social norms and values. People no longer had sufficient feelings of belonging to something bigger than themselves, and this he saw as causing all manner of disorder and socio-psychological problems.

Durkheim believed that it was myth, ritual and emotion, rather than rational thought, that were the most important aspects of how people understood themselves. But he did not condemn modern society or rational thought. Rather, he wanted to apply social science to the improvement of social conditions. Indeed, he had some very specific proposals on how individuals could recover a sense of belonging, thereby re-establishing social order on new foundations that could work for an industrialised society.

The answer lay, Durkheim said, with new ‘intermediary groups’ between the state and the individual. So, in my vocabulary, he wanted a new groupiness.

I’m fairly sure that no Japanese politician or bureaucrat has ever consulted Durkheim’s writings as a guide to policy on anything. But might it be that Emile Durkheim is the unrecognised original architect of the socially orderly modernity that Japan has achieved?

Nobody seems to have noticed that in the part of his writing that is always skimmed over quickly by university lecturers, Durkheim in 1897 and again in 1902 proposed a way to create a socially functional industrialised society which corresponds in an uncanny way to what Japan actually created.

In Suicide published in 1897, Durkheim demonstrated that the increase in suicides in modern European societies was produced by the new social conditions attributable to modernisation. At the end of the book he faced the problem squarely. The enormous increase in suicides was, he wrote, “a pathological phenomenon becoming daily a greater menace. By what means shall we try to overcome it?”

He goes on to discount nationalism, religion, better education, and stronger families as solutions to the problem. Rather, Durkheim argued that a person’s working life was the best foundation upon which to build a meaningful moral environment and sense of belonging in the modern world. He thought that working life took up most of people’s time and was the main element in people’s sense of identity.

“[T]he occupational group,” he wrote, “has the three-fold advantage over all others that it is omnipresent, ubiquitous and that its control extends to the greatest part of life.” Only the occupational group possessed “everything needed to give the individual a setting, to draw him out of his state of moral isolation.”

A few years later in 1902, he added a preface to the second edition of his great work, published in English as The Division of Labor in Society, in which he elaborated on this idea.

Recalling the medieval guilds and their masters and apprentices, Durkheim argued for formal occupational associations – bodies such as the Law Society for lawyers or the Society of Medical Practitioners for doctors – to be given a role in providing for their members and structuring their lives.

Membership would be compulsory and the organisations would, as they do now, regulate pay and working conditions and handle disputes with employers. But Durkheim thought they could and should do much more.

Replacing to some extent, the pre-modern extended family, such groups would provide “warmth”, and “feelings of solidarity between assistants and assisted, a certain intellectual and moral homogeneity such as the same occupation produces”.

Durkheim cited trade unions as already beginning to provide cultural enrichment for their members. He argued that for a modern society to work better, society needed this kind of group between the state and the individual which would provide the personal, face-to-face solidarity people needed and thereby integrate them into society.

He was calling for occupational groups to be the main group which would generate solidarity, improve people’s lives and create social order.

Durkheim wanted these groups to also play a formal role in political life. He would have abolished the geographical districts which form the basis of democratically elected parliaments. In their place he would have substituted the occupational groups which he thought much more meaningful in representing real communities of interests.

To anyone reading Durkheim’s words now, his idea seems a little odd. The underlying assumption that occupation is a stable and all-encompassing source of individual personal identity in industrialised societies has simply  not turned out to be true.

Occupational affiliation is often transient, and even if long-lasting has shown itself to have a fairly weak hold on a person’s sense of belonging when compared with structures like families, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and even sexual identities.

In Japan however, I would argue, workplace, has been much more a source of identity.

I say workplace, not occupational group. In Japan, with key exceptions such as medicine, it is much less important what professional training one receives than in the west. What is important is the company one joins. The company will recruit and train staff according to company-specific requirements and will not be especially concerned with what type of degree their recruits obtained at university.

I sometimes meet Japanese young people who at university have studied exotic fields such as Arab and Islamic studies or Hungarian literature and who now work in firms in entirely unrelated areas such as software engineering.

Japan’s post-war commitment to lifetime employment and the resulting difficulty in switching jobs (in economist speak: inflexible labour market) actually created the foundation for workplace to be a meaningful moral environment and provide that sense of belonging that Durkheim was talking about.

Workplaces really were, and for about two-thirds of the workforce, still are, like hierarchical families in the style of the relationships that prevail internally (consensual, kohai-sempai or junior-senior relationships) and in the way they relate to the outside world.

In addition, the extremely long working hours really do make the workplace the controller of an employee’s life. So, workplace in Japan is an approximate equivalent of what Durkheim wanted to achieve with occupational groups. It gives meaning and generates tight bonds, it is omnipresent, ubiquitous, and it controls the greater part of life. Workplace in Japan simply takes up more of a person’s time and energy and generates more ‘identity’ than elsewhere.

On the other hand, Japan does not fare particularly well in international comparisons of labour productivity which suggests there is quite a bit of sleeping at desks going on. But the reason for this is, again, rather Durkheimian: much time “at work” is dedicated to extracurricular activities. Employers themselves organise evening drinking sessions and company picnics. They do not think this is time wasted. Socialising with co-workers is seen as a positive contribution to group cohesiveness and the worker’s sense of identification with the company.

It must be remembered too that staff often live together in company dorms, so they socialise a good deal with each other outside working hours, especially if their families live far away.

If Durkheim painted an accurate picture of what the Japanese workplace does as a provider of a socially integrative moral environment, he failed magnificently in his prediction that such integration would make people contented and reduce the suicide rate.

In Japan, social order is certainly higher as he predicted, but it hasn’t prevented the suicide rate from being in the same range as other industrialised countries. In more recent decades it has increased to be the eighth highest suicide rate in the world and second highest in the industrialised world, currently exceeding 30,000 suicides per year.

I’m not sure what this proves, except that suicide is a complex phenomenon with many variables at the psychological level which Durkheim was not able to consider from his society-scale perspective. Perhaps what it proves is that the new industrial society groupiness isn’t as effective at making individuals happy as Durkheim thought it would be.

A further observation would be that a certain social prestige does still attach to suicide in Japan. This is an attitude which goes hand in hand with the other pre-modern elements of Japan’s social structure which don’t exist elsewhere. This element seems to give the suicide rate a boost.

In Suicide Durkheim demonstrated that suicides could be divided into several different categories. Just one category of suicide rate which he called ‘altruistic’ suicide, was actually going down at the time he was writing. This was the kind of suicide which occurred when an individual felt so bound up with a group that they did not have any sense of the worth of their own individual life. This is the type of suicide that has social prestige in Japan.

Examples include military officers who commit suicide because they feel it is their duty in circumstances, say, of a reprimand or a question of honour. Durkheim says in this throw-away line: “The readiness of the Japanese to disembowel themselves for the slightest reason is well known.”

Japan seems to be a society where suicides which are ‘standard’ for advanced industrial societies combine with ‘altruistic’ suicide to produce a higher suicide rate overall.

I say this because I don’t see most suicides in contemporary Japan as of the old-fashioned altruistic kind that Durkheim defined – not the ‘samurai who disembowels himself because it is the honourable thing to do after the death of his master’ type of suicide.

Rather, they are of the other types Durkheim associated with the problems of modernity – depression caused by disorienting effects of modern life, economic hardship, bankruptcies, failed relationships – but in Japan it is overlaid with the attitude that the only honourable solution is to commit suicide. Suicide is an act associated with taking responsibility for life’s setbacks. A rather different attitude than the one we find in the west.

Durkheim’s views on the role of occupational groups are usually considered a bit embarrassing by sociologists who trace their intellectual tradition back to Durkheim. It is seen as a bit weird and just one of many flaky modernist-utopian ideas that simply missed the mark.

But despite the predictive failure on suicide, it should be seen as a great piece of social thought – even if it is Japan, a country that he never visited, that proved him sort of right.