Japan is starting to seriously seek ways to curb excessive work hours as the overwork-related suicide of a young employee spotlights a long-standing issue that has never been fully addressed.
The traditional corporate culture of punishing hours has persisted since Japan’s spurt of rapid economic expansion after the war, when hard work seemed to lead the nation’s growth.
But that is no longer a driving force. Working conditions have changed dramatically since the bubble economy’s implosion in the early 1990s and the 2008 global financial crisis. Both forced Japanese companies to undertake drastic restructuring, including massive job cuts.
In 2015, Japan had worked the third-longest hours of the Group of Seven industrialized countries, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But the world’s third-largest economy was ranked as having the worst productivity of the G-7 nations last year, according to the Japan Productivity Center.
The aging population leaves the country at risk of labor shortages, which could put more pressure on future workers.
“Japan is still a country where working long hours is considered a virtue,” said Kazunari Tamaki, a lawyer who specializes in karoshi (death from overwork). “But we need to focus on improving efficiency within fixed hours to boost productivity.”
The karoshi-related suicide last year of 24-year-old Dentsu Inc. employee Matsuri Takahashi has sparked public criticism of the rampant and illegally long working hours and a push for a fundamental reform of working conditions.
Takahashi logged 105 hours of overtime two months before jumping to her death from a company dormitory. The labor ministry this week referred Dentsu and one of its executives to prosecutors this week over the incident, and President Tadashi Ishii announced Wednesday that he would resign in January.
Among the 34 OECD member countries, Japan logged an average of 1,719 hours per worker in 2015, surpassing 1,371 hours in Germany, 1,482 hours in France and 1,674 hours in Britain but falling short of South Korea’s 2,113 hours.
According to a government white paper on karoshi released in October, more than 20 percent of Japanese companies said monthly overtime per employee exceeded 80 hours, a threshold said to increase the risk of death.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made a move to raise work efficiency by launching a “work-style reform” panel. The stated aim is to alter the practice of long working hours and set strict penalties for companies that permit excessive and inefficient work.
The government also announced in December that it would disclose the names of companies with deaths related to overwork and beef up monitoring of unpaid overtime.
Following Takahashi’s suicide, Sadayuki Sakakibara, the head of Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), the nation’s most influential business lobby, said “death by overwork should never happen. I ask executives to take effective measures to redress (the situation).”
New measures to improve work-life-balance at some firms are shedding light on how Japan Inc. could pursue growth without heavily relying on overwork.
Workers at the health care firm Saint-Works Corp. in Tokyo now have their departure times taped to their uniforms when they plan to stay late.
Sachio Ichinose, 41, says he is able to leave work around 5 p.m. and pick up his 1-year-old daughter from day care every day now.
“New ideas do not pop up after meetings are extended an extra 2 or 3 hours. Work becomes productive when it is balanced out with your private life,” he said.
Overtime at Saint-Works has more than halved in the past 4½ years, while its sales and pretax profit continue to grow every year.
Major trading house Itochu Corp. bans employees in general from working after 8 p.m. and does not allow any work after 10 p.m.
The company introduced early morning working hours in 2013. Its employees who work between 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. are provided a light meal and are also paid extra wages equivalent to those for late-night hours.
Work can easily become endless at night, but concentrating overtime on a limited number of hours during the early part of the day helps produce better performance, the company says. Itochu was ranked the top trading house in terms of net profit for the first time in fiscal 2015.
At computer system developer SCSK Corp., monthly payment includes an extra 20-hour pay package to discourage employees from working more than 20 extra hours. It also pays an extra bonus as an incentive to work less overtime and take more holidays.
Many Japanese workers strive “not to cause trouble” — another factor that makes it difficult to resist excessive work, Tamaki said.
“The root is really deep but now is the time to change,” he said.