Japan's punishing workplace culture

28 June 2021

11:24 PM

28 June 2021

11:24 PM

Are the world’s hardest workers about to get a well-earned break? That seems to be the hope of the Japanese government, which is trying to encourage companies to ease off a bit and allowtheir exhausted staff the luxury of a four-day working week. It is hoped this will lead to a healthier work-life balance — or at least give workers a chance to retrain. As an idea, it sounds great. Whether it will actually work is another matter entirely.

In January, the ruling (always and forever) Liberal Democratic party drafted a proposal that firms should offer staff the option of a three-day weekend. The plan was then included in the annual budget and approved by PM Yoshihiro Suga’s cabinet this month, moving it from the ‘nice idea’ category to the ‘will be actively pursued’ stage.

Undoubtedly the scheme has much in its favour — at least in theory. Although pedants may point out that, according to OECD statistics, Japan is only the 22nd hardest working nation on earth, such figures take no account of the notorious ‘service zangyo’ or unpaid overtime system here. If that were factored in, Japan would probably top the charts, and perhaps by some distance.

Service zangyo is a national scandal that undoubtedly leads to a significant number of deaths each year. Exceptionally shocking cases provoke occasional calls for change: the suicide of ad agency worker Matsuri Takashi in 2015 — working 100 hours a month extra — was one; the heart attack suffered by NHK reporter Miwa Sado, aged 31, (159 hours in the month before her death) was another. But the system persists. There are officially 2,000 workplace suicides a year — but how many die of heart disease, strokes or other overwork related conditions is unknown.

Service zangyo endures because it is still considered culturally inappropriate to leave the office before your boss and because there is little legal recourse. Sometimes, just quitting is the only option: a reportin the Atlantic quoted a worker at a prestigious Japanese homebuilder who ended up having a nervous breakdown as a result of being pressured into working almost round the clock. He claimed that 600 of the 800 staff in his intake had resigned as a result of their punishing schedules.

Excessive office hours are often cited as a contributor to Japan’s alarming population decline — with couples simply too shattered and demoralised to do their duty after 20 hour work days. Japan’s birthrate in 2020 was at its lowest level in history and, overall, there were 500,000 fewer births than deaths. If that trend continues, the Japanese could cease to exist in a couple of hundred years’ time.

But some see the real culprit of population decline as the scarcity of lifetime employment opportunities. A job at a decent company in Japan used to be a til-death-do-us-part arrangement. Problem employees would get shunted off to backwaters where they could do no harm and surplus staff approaching retirement were allowed to simply turn up and mark time (so-called ‘window men’). No one was ever made redundant. It may not have made great business sense, but it was good for family planning.

But no more. A relaxation of labour laws in the 1990s enabling companies to hire more contract and temporary workers, transforming the thinking of Japan’s employers — the balance of power now firmly, dangerously, favours companies. This has led to a drastic reduction in full-time positions and a surge in the number of part-timers or ‘freeters’.

Male freeters have no long-term employment security and are effectively junk bonds in the high stakes marriage stock market. Long-term economic viability often trumps romantic considerations in a culture where arranged marriages were once the norm and are still popular. A friend of mine once had to endure a detailed inquisition — involving spreadsheets and calculators — on his likely lifetime earnings during his first visit to his Japanese girlfriend’s parents.

Low status freeters are often left in a sad single life. Women, though likely to get more work, are also increasingly getting stuck in irregular employment. For the young, and not so young, just getting by has become the priority, with marriage and children postponed until more stable circumstances present themselves. Sadly, for many, that day never arrives.

A four-day work week is unlikely to help with this problem. In any case, the fear is that firms will either not comply, falsely claim to be complying, or comply but cut their employees’ pay by a fifth. That would probably lead to people taking on part-time jobs to make up the shortfall. And even if they do decide to retrain, Japan has limited support for such endeavours.

Suga’s government’s scheme is not the first attempt to recalibrate Japan’s working culture. Previous efforts include: ‘Cool biz’ (dress down in summer to save on air-conditioning and create a more dynamic working environment); ‘Premium Friday’ — a ‘compulsory’ half day off once a month, and ‘Womenomics’ (more women into the workforce).

None of them have really helped. And nor, probably, will this.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments