A package of work-style reforms, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says is at the top of his agenda for this legislative session, will soon be on the way to the Diet for deliberations. It will feature the introduction of the first-ever legal cap on overtime hours, rules aimed at establishing the "equal work, equal pay" principle by improving working conditions for people with irregular job statuses and a new system that allows some corporate employees to be paid on the basis of their performance rather than hours spent in the workplace. The legislation, expected to be approved by the Cabinet and submitted to the Diet by the end of this month, marks an important first step, but it needs to be backed up by further efforts for the measures to have the intended effects.

The government views work-style reform as a solution to many of the problems that confront Japan's economy. Curbing the chronically long working hours of company employees through tightened regulations on overtime, with provisions for penalties on violators, is hoped to promote a better work-life balance among workers and encourage more women and the elderly to join the workforce — thus alleviating the manpower shortage as the nation's working-age population declines. Narrowing the wide disparity in wages and other conditions between regular full-time employees and irregular workers such as part-timers and term-contract workers, who have come to account for 40 percent of the labor force, will hopefully enhance the latter's morale and productivity. Increased wages for those workers will raise their purchasing power and contribute to consumer spending, whose growth remains weak despite an extended growth of the economy.

It would be premature, however, to assume that the legislation alone will realize such a scenario. It is the first time since the Labor Standards Law was introduced seven decades ago that an upper limit will be placed on workers' monthly overtime hours; currently, how much overtime is allowed for workers during busy seasons is left to an agreement between management and labor unions at each firm. The prime minister emphasizes his resolve to "never repeat the tragedies" of karōshi (death from overwork) or suicides of over-stressed workers through the reform. But the upper limit under the legislation was set at a maximum of "less than 100 hours" a month — a level at which death can be linked to overwork — following negotiations among the government and representatives from business and labor circles.