Japan’s culture of overtime thwarts Abe’s plans for more working moms

by and


Hiroko Yano, who’s worked 20 years at the same company, was recently told she could become a manager. The mother of three, who puts in an average of two hours of overtime a day, rejected the idea, saying she doesn’t want to be stuck in the office until midnight like the other managers.

“I’d like to have a job where I don’t have to do overtime,” said Yano, 45, a team leader at an information technology solutions company, who asked that it not be named. “Sometimes I think it would be better to give up working altogether and become a housewife, so that I can see my children when they come back from school.”

Japan’s culture of working long hours makes it difficult for women to take senior roles and still leave on time, threatening to thwart Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pledge to fill 30 percent of management positions with females by 2020. Unless more women and elderly people are encouraged to work, the nation’s labor force may shrink to 38 million people in 2060 from 66 million now, according to Cabinet Office calculations.

Shoko Yamaguchi, a 38-year-old mother of two and a qualified accountant, says Abe’s goal may prove elusive. Yamaguchi talked to four recruiting companies when looking for a new job, explaining she wanted to leave work on time to pick up her children. She was told to consider part-time work instead.

“I don’t think Abe gets how things work in the world at all,” said Yamaguchi. “Until something is done about the culture of long working hours, things aren’t going to change.”

Women fill 11.2 percent of management positions in Japan, compared with 34.2 percent in the U.K. and 43.7 percent in the U.S., according to a Japanese government report.

While Japan’s female labor-force participation rate rose to a record 62.5 percent last year, it still trailed the 80.6 percent rate for men, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s latest “Womenomics” report, written by a team led by Chief Japan Strategist Kathy Matsui.

The gender gap starts to widen when women get pregnant, according to Nana Oishi, a professor at the University of Melbourne who studies female labor issues. In Japan, more than 60 percent of women quit work with the birth of their first child, leaving them without a position to go back to later.

Some women resign because of bullying, called “matahara,” short for maternity harassment, Oishi said. About 30 percent of Japanese women have experienced matahara, according to the Japan Trade Union Confederation (Rengo).

“There are many reasons why Japanese women don’t work full time,” Oishi said. “The whole thing starts when they get pregnant. Once they tell their boss and colleagues about their pregnancy, some are pressured to resign since they will be a ‘burden’ to their colleagues, who will have to take on additional work during her maternity or childcare leave, and when her child gets sick.”

The Japanese tradition of hiring people straight out of university into lifetime positions makes it difficult for women who quit jobs to return, or to find similar full-time roles with promotion prospects. Although more than 50 percent of mothers want to return full-time if they can be excluded from overtime, fewer than 10 percent do, with most settling for part-time jobs, according to a Cabinet Office survey.

“Companies need to change their mindset,” said Kana Takahashi, a 33-year-old mother who manages a team of accountants and auditors. “A job is not sitting at a desk 12 hours a day.”

Men in Japan work some of the longest hours in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The average Japanese male works 44.1 hours a week, the sixth-highest of 33 countries ranked by the organization, compared with 40.5 hours in the U.S. and 35.3 hours in the Netherlands.

Long working hours also help explain why Japanese men spend the least time doing unpaid housework among all the OECD countries, averaging just 59 minutes a day. That adds to the pressure on women to balance family commitments with work and is one of the main reasons why women over 40 in Japan earn about 40 percent less than men, according to the organization.

“Unless working hours are significantly shortened at their workplace, working mothers will not apply for promotions, despite Abe’s push,” said Oishi, the University of Melbourne professor. “Most of them must leave their office early to pick up their kids before daycare centers close.”

Yamaguchi, the accountant, started asking recruiters to help her find a job similar to the management position she had at a multinational company in Japan before she took a buyout package as the company downsized.

“I told them I could take a laptop and work at home in the evenings if needed, like at my previous company,” she said in an interview. “I even offered to arrange it with my husband so I could work overtime during busy periods, but I couldn’t do overtime on a daily basis or on short notice. I was told jobs for managers with such flexible conditions don’t exist at Japanese companies.”

Some Japanese companies such as Hitachi Ltd., the nation’s second-largest manufacturer by number of employees, are working to cut down long hours and introduce performance-related pay to help more than double female managers to 1,000 by 2020.

In the meantime, they may lose talent to overseas-based employers. Yamaguchi eventually found a female recruiter who was also a working mother and helped her find a full-time managerial job at a non-Japanese company.

Takahashi, the 33-year-old mother, also took a full-time management position at a multinational company that understood her needs as a mother.

“My principle is I want to be home for dinner,” Takahashi said. “I work occasionally on weekends, but I don’t work ridiculous hours.”

Japan’s workforce would swell by more than 7 million people and gross domestic product could jump as much as 13 percent if participation by women equaled that of men, according to Goldman Sachs. For that to happen, companies need to shift away from the current system that emphasizes long hours and seniority, said Matsui.

“Japanese society has changed, and young people don’t want to spend their lives in the office — not just women, but men as well,” Matsui said. “It’s up to private companies to wake up and realize the world has changed, and adapt with it.”

  • James Dean

    Japan, change? lol that’s funny.

  • Stephen Kent

    I know not a single person here who likes working so much overtime and yet you never hear of any action (any serious action at any rate) taken by anyone to try and make working conditions more humane. It’s as if there is some belief on the part of the ordinary working person that forced and often unnecessary overtime is an unalterable fact of life despite what the law says, and a belief on the part of management that if you keep people at the office long enough then somehow the end result will be Japan regaining its economic glory of the past. Obviously this is not the case and everyone really knows that in the long term things have to change in Japan so that a) it isn’t in direct competition with China in the field of manufacturing as that is a fight that Japan is bound to lose eventually, and b) so that the real problems facing the country can actually be addressed (shrinking/ageing population, low fertility, etc.).

    It just seems to me that the management of companies enjoy, more than anything, the power they have over their employees. If one were to slightly alter a passage from a famous novel, Ms. Yamaguchi’s conversation with her manager might have gone something like this:

    “There will be no loyalty, except loyalty to the company. There will be no love, except the love of our CEO. There will be no laughter, except the drunken laughter at compulsory after work drinks. There will be no free time, no family, and no economy. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need for the economy. There will also be no distinction between work and home. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always – do not forget this, Ms. Yamaguchi – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an employee who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a manager stamping on an employee’s face – for ever.”

  • phu

    “Japanese society has changed, and young people don’t want to spend their lives in the office — not just women, but men as well,” Matsui said. “It’s up to private companies to wake up and realize the world has changed, and adapt with it.”

    But Japanese society HASN’T changed, at least not in the positive way this person wants it to change, and that’s the real problem. The change that has come about in Japan is that drastically fewer salaried positions exist at all as private companies, who have finally found a way around Japan’s excessive worker protections (and I say that as a proponent of workers’ rights), increasingly use low-overhead, low-risk temp workers instead to do what they’ve always done: Keep boosting profits and hoarding cash. No, young people don’t want to spend their lives in the office, but that hasn’t changed the office: It’s resulted in a generation of NEETs and hikikomori, and they certainly aren’t altering the business climate.

    Further, “private companies” are not entities that can “wake up” or realize anything. They are legal constructs that obscure groups of people; it’s people that screw other people and perpetuate harmful workplace norms, and framing the discussion in this way hides the fact that it’s people who need to change, and that’s a very difficult proposition. Much easier, again, to simply view it as a single faceless entity that can change a policy, flip a switch, and make their lives more comfortable.

    “Companies need to change their mindset,” said Kana Takahashi, a 33-year-old mother who manages a team of accountants and auditors. “A job is not sitting at a desk 12 hours a day.”

    Once again: Wrong; that IS what a job is, and it’s the very definition of the job at many Japanese companies, where workers will essentially twiddle their thumbs for most of the day, spending their time simply filling a chair for the purpose of retaining their paychecks. The people complaining here don’t want to face the fact that the ideas they espouse do not reflect reality; that would lead to the conclusion that they actually have to work for that change instead of just assuming that it’s already happened, and who wants to do that?

    There’s also a rather toxic, and likely divisive, slant this article consistently displays: Vastly more men than women are having their lives ruined by this system, so why is it that instead of making actual workplace reform the central tenet, we see “well, we don’t like the system, but all we really want is better conditions for women (oh, and also, a footnote that men are involved too)?”

    This sort of “OK, go ahead and do it, just not to us” mentality is part of the reason this is going to fail. Instead of trying to generally improve things, people look for a band-aid fix that applies to them. Even if they get it, it’ll eventually stop working, and they’ll be back to where they started; in the meantime, the people who were already being victimized by these practices will just keep on being used, because even as the government puts women in a position where they might have some weight on this issue (via Abe’s misguided women-in-the-workforce red herring), the people attempting to take action are so short-sighted that they look out for themselves at the expense of the larger problem.

    Anyway, the point is that this probably won’t do any good, and if it does, it’ll do the least possible good, which means the vast majority of the Japanese workforce (i.e. men) won’t see any improvements. Great work, ladies, take a bow.