Work as a Gift

by Peter Saint-Andre


While reading British anthropologist Alan Macfarlane's fascinating book Japan through the Looking Glass recently, I was introduced to a conception of economic interaction almost entirely different from that in the West:

Working for an employer is seen as a gift of one's labour and the wages are the return of the gift. The Japanese word for salary is roku, which means 'gift'.... [Macfarlane's friend Toshiko Nakamura] enlightened us further. Payments for goods and those for services are considered to be totally different things in Japan, she said. Up to the nineteenth century school fees were not an obligatory but a voluntary payment, usually made in goods rather than money.... There are still a lot of 'voluntary' fees in Japan. Toshiko's sister-in-law teaches piano but finds it nearly impossible to ask for payment and relies on the parents of her students to do the honourable thing. Often when fees are paid, presents are also given at certain times of year which underlines the idea of payment as a 'gift'. Thus fee payment is part of a social relationship, not a cold economic transaction.

Although I had only glimmers of that attitude during my business career - mostly at one technology firm that felt almost like a family - now that I'm freed from need and can collaborate only with people whose company I enjoy, my work feels much more like a gift. Sometimes I even receive a gift in return, as I was delighted to do today from my friend Christoph Kerschbaumer in return for my help with editing his excellent new book Beyond the Code: Setting You up for Success as a Software Engineer.

(Cross-posted at


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