Why Japanese Workers (and Medical Residents) Should Pursue FIRE

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In the years following WWII, the U.S. helped Japan rebuild infrastructure and institutions. From that time onward, the relationship has been mostly a bromance. Our nations have arguably become the Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson of the G-8, putting one another in playful headlocks when negotiating Pacific trade agreements or playing wingman when a cute vulnerable bachelorette country finds itself in need of rescue from a douchebag regional bully with nuclear capabilities.

Journalists in recent years have highlighted the fact that little brother has started to beat big brother using the latter’s original playbook. Japan is taking American cultural trends and icons and raising the stakes, developing a respectable mastery that arguably refines classics like bourbon, denim, and burgers.

Unfortunately, Japan has not just adopted, but raised the stakes on American workaholic culture.  A recent article in the NY Times drew attention to a 31 year old woman who, after putting in 159 hours over overtime in her job at a state-run broadcasting agency, died of heart failure.  

The cause has become common enough to have been assigned a name: karoshi, “death from overwork.” The condition first appeared in the 1980s, and it cuts across all income brackets, affecting blue collar factory workers and white collar executives alike.

Work culture in Japan considers exhaustion a positive sign of a respectable work ethic, placing junior workers (especially those under 35) at particular risk as they earn their stripes to climb the ranks.

Physician readers may find their spidey senses tingling with recognition because residency training for physicians has an awful lot in common with the potentially toxic culture that enables karoshi.  Elders in the field who shrug off legitimate concerns by stating they took their hits as a rite of passage, disparaging the latest generation of residents as whiners. At around the time I graduated from medical school, hospitals dependent on low-cost labor and federal subsidies to maintain their entrenched interests opposed the right of residents to unionize; change was ultimately imposed from the courts.

While the right to a less abusive work environment continues to trickle (slowly and unevenly) into medical training, the available resources to help resident physicians to avoid financial abuse is at an all-time high. The physician financial blogger community is in the midst of a renaissance, with the White Coat investor leading a mainstream educational movement toward financial common sense on the one hand, and Physician on Fire demonstrating how thoughtful investing and a frugal disposition can enable even late starters like doctors to reach financial independence in a decade.

Karoshi is an extreme example, a symptom of a sick work culture. When medical residency ends, FIRE offers young physicians a path to take control over their financial destinies, putting them in a position to eventually decline unreasonable work obligations. For Japanese workers, FIRE gives the young and exploited an offramp from a potentially dispiriting future of continual (occasionally fatal) work-related stress.

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