Why do Germans work 35 hours a week, while Japanese work so much more?

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Farmers' work hours are said to shape their culture

Around the world, work weeks are vastly different. Why is this? France and Germany have a work week of only about 35 hours, and law prohibits working more than 48-hours per week on average, while in Japan about 22% of employees work more than that, and an overtime culture can lead some workers to do up to 100 hours a week.

Are some people lazy while others are hardworking? Are some efficient while others are inefficient? The answer might be something else entirely.

Author Jared Diamond argues that the reason lies in history. In his best-selling book Guns, Germs, and Steel, he delves into many cultural differences and how they relate to the past.

How are office work and farming related?

Different working cultures, states Diamond, are generally due to traditional farming. His reasoning is both simple and surprising.

Asia has rice as the staple, while Europe has wheat. Historically many people around the world were farmers, so a lot of our culture, from food to festivals, relies on these staples. It turns out, there is a big difference between rice farming and wheat farming.

Rice adds nutrients to the ground. So if a farmer plants more rice, over time, yield will increase. There is a direct correlation between hard work and productivity. One piece of land can feed hundreds of people, if the farmers work hard enough. For most Asian farmers, hard work lead to a bigger result.

Simply put, rice adds nutrients to the soil, while wheat takes them away

Wheat, on the other hand, takes nutrients from the ground. Wheat depletes the soil, so if a farmer plants too much wheat for too long, the soil becomes sandy and unusable. In Europe, wheat-growing land was divided into four plots, and wheat was planted in only three, while the fourth was left to rest. For European farmers, hard work depleted the soil and resting the land led to a bigger result.

There are many complex reasons for different working cultures, but the stark difference between France and Germany's value of rest and holidays compared with China and Japan's value of hard work and effort is likely due to how these were traditionally rewarded. So it can be said that farming created Asia’s long working hours and Europe’s long holidays.

Nowadays most people are not farmers, and advancing technology is changing our lifestyle. Working hours around the world tend to be decreasing, but traditions effect culture in deep ways, and there is still a big difference between modern working cultures around the world.