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Japan's War on Overwork

In an effort to combat a culture of runaway overtime, Tokyo’s governor recently announced that municipal employees must head home by 8 p.m.

Tokyo workers toil into the night. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

A young woman in her 20s works 18 to 20 hours a day, including weekends, until she suffers a mental breakdown. A man in his 50s toils similar hours, averaging only three hours of sleep a night, until he collapses from a brain hemorrhage. Such are stories of corporate work culture in Japan, where employees are expected to log in an incredible number of overtime hours—often without pay. There’s even a legally recognized term for death-by-overwork: karoshi. The number of compensation claims filed by families of karoshi victims reached an all-time high last year.

Last week, Tokyo’s governor (the rough equivalent of an American mayor and state governor combined in terms of duties), Yuriko Koike, announced a plan to decrease overtime hours for the city’s 170,000 municipal workers, ordering them to leave the office by 8 p.m. at the latest. “Overtime prevention teams” will perform “overtime reduction marathons” in each department—they’ll turn out the lights to signal that it’s time to call it a day. Koike says she hopes that this system will become a model for other Japanese cities and for the private sector.

With Japan’s workforce aging and its birthrate low, the resultant shortage of workers is part of the reason why the practice of overtime is flourishing. When offices are understaffed, employees often stay late or forego vacation out a sense of loyalty to their colleagues, not wanting to burden them with still more work.

But even with workers stuck at the office for hours on end, Japan’s productivity is lagging. In 2015, the country ranked 22nd out of 34 OECD member states in terms of productivity. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic agenda has in part focused on turning this trend around through labor reform, mainly via deregulation. By giving big business more control over its employees, such policies could lead to even more miserable conditions for workers.  

Commuters wait for the next train in a Tokyo station. (Yuya Shino/Reuters)

Yet this approach appears to be changing. In addition to the Tokyo governor’s move, recent government initiatives include the drafting of legislation that will compel employees to take all their paid holidays (workers generally take less than half their paid leave), and a meeting at which 50 mayors brainstormed about child care and work-life balance. Abe himself recently appointed a cabinet minister to spearhead a labor reform plan for March 2017 that will address the reduction of overtime—perhaps even a strict cap on company hours.

At the same time, Japanese millennials are looking for more flexibility in their work. Unlike their predecessors, one in three university seniors are reportedly looking for jobs that will allow them to enjoy evening leisure time.

“I hope to work fixed hours and have time to spend with my family too,” one student told NHK, the country’s public television station. “I’m not attracted to companies that demand a lot of overtime,” declared another.

The change in attitude is pressuring corporations to offer young people more humane options—even without government intervention. Some companies are heeding the call, attracting millennials as well as their older counterparts by minimizing overtime or sticking to eight-hour days.

Similar cases of enforced work-life balance in Sweden, as well as research on reduced working hours in the United States, seem to show that this approach can work: A decrease in time spent at the office often results in a rise in productivity. It’s possible that, in this case, what's best for workers could also serve a government's goals.

About the Author

  • Mimi Kirk
    Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab, with a focus on the Middle East and Asia. She lives in Washington, D.C.