National / Politics

Details short as Abe renews vow to end culture of overwork

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday reaffirmed his vow to end the entrenched corporate culture of overwork but stopped short of setting a timeline for legislation or promising to require a rest period between shifts.

“It is a matter of fact that we seek to rectify the tendency toward overwork,” Abe told the Upper House Budget Committee. “Doing so will help enrich the way workers lead their lives and ensure that the tragedy of karoshi (death from overwork) will not be repeated.

“Such a reform will also boost productivity,” he added. “This is the direction we will be taking.”

Abe was responding to questions from Renho, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party. He sought to emphasize the administration’s ongoing commitment to ending the nation’s dependence on overwork, which has long been glorified as a symbol of diligence.

Debate over excessive work hours flared anew following outrage over the 2015 karoshi-driven suicide of 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi, who had clocked more than 100 hours of monthly overtime at the Dentsu Inc. advertising agency.

Despite Abe’s rosy promises Monday, his responses were conspicuous for their lack of detail.

Abe refused to confirm media reports over the weekend that the administration, which last year set up a task force charged with overhauling corporate culture, is looking to dictate a 60-hour cap on monthly overtime.

Reports said the administration is also planning to allow up to 100 hours during “busy seasons,” although the monthly average over the year would need to be kept below the 60-hour threshold.

Renho decried the 100-hour exception, which she said is almost equal to working until 11 p.m. every weekday. The policy, she said, is tantamount to “the government justifying the level of overwork that has the danger of triggering karoshi.”

Labor minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki said the details are still being worked out, but the overtime cap will be based on such priorities as protecting employees’ well-being and improving their work-life balance.

Abe said the government will submit a bill on overtime “as soon as preparations are finalized.” He made no assurance that the bill will be ready before the current Diet session closes in mid-June.

Abe also appeared reluctant to mandate a minimum interval period — consecutive hours of rest between shifts — as requested by Renho, who said Japan should emulate the 11-hour rest period required in the European Union.

While conceding that such a rest period is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, Abe said this kind of system is currently in use by just 2.2 percent of Japanese companies.

Noting that a drastic change would undoubtedly spark confusion, Abe said the government will opt to “encourage” firms to introduce such a system through subsidies, rather than by force of law.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada found herself the target of a barrage of questions from Renho, who attacked her by dredging up some of her most hawkish assertions from a conservative magazine 10 years ago.

Inada admitted to arguing in the magazine Seiron that hiring women despite their “inferior abilities” under the pretext of fostering gender equality is “nothing but crazy.”

She also admitted to calling “pointless” numerical targets aimed at increasing the use of parental leave and spreading awareness that slapping or threatening a spouse is domestic violence.

“I made these remarks as many as 10 years ago and I have grown up as a politician since then,” Inada said.

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