Are Japanese Overworked?

Are Japanese Overworked?

by Nicola Spendlove • 11 min read

The Japanese culture of overwork is no secret – in fact, it’s so widespread there’s even a word for working oneself to death (“karoshi”). Let’s examine the workplace culture in Japan – how it came to be so intense, and whether it is showing any genuine signs of letting up in the near future.

You’ve probably heard a lot of stories about workplace culture in Japan. Even those who have never traveled to the Land of the Rising Sun have seen images of overworked employees falling asleep in train stations from sheer exhaustion.

For the most part, there is little exaggeration in tales of long working hours in Japan. The media, too, normalizes overwork in Japan – take hit series Kodoku no Gorume (The Lonely Gourmet) which romanticizes the solitary life of a Japanese businessman – and has given rise to a whole genre of TV and literature that praises the ideals of a solitary life.

History Of Overwork In Japan

One might question where these ideals around workplace culture originally came from. It is interesting to note that they are actually not that old – the birth of overwork culture came about within the living memory of many older citizens of Japan.

Japan, like much of the world, suffered a great economic hit as a result of the Second World War. Following the war, the country underwent major changes – both in the constitution and in culture. In the post-war era, employment policies began to reflect a desire to re-start the Japanese economy as efficiently as possible.

The public was craving stability and security after an incredibly turbulent time for the nation. In order to capitalize on this desire, the government encouraged companies to offer their employees lifelong contracts. In return, employees were expected to show loyalty and dedication to their employers.

The demonstration of this loyalty involved long hours, little time off, and an overall commitment to doing whatever was necessary to enable the fractured post-war economy to recover and thrive. Of course, these attitudes remained long after Japan recovered.

Over time, the offer of loyalty from employers became increasingly rare. In 1986, temporary and short-term work was partly legalized, and then in 1999, these employment conditions were made completely legal. The wage gap grew, and suddenly an economically equal society was transforming into one divided into those who were paid a living wage and those who were not.

Despite the fact that the expectation for employers to show lifetime loyalty began to lift, the expectations for employees to show dedication remained in place.

How Many Hours do Japanese People Work?

Japanese work contracts tend to outline similar working conditions to other parts of the developed world. A full-time position generally requires 40 hours of office time per week. On paper, this seems entirely reasonable – so why is it that Japan has a reputation for intense overwork?

Well, part of the answer to this lies in salary conditions. Many companies offer a modest basic salary, which can be attained by working the standard 40 hours per week. On top of this, there is mikyomi zangyo – or “service overtime”.

This is overtime that is expected by the company and will not be financially compensated and can amount to between 20-40 hours weekly. In other words, an employee could potentially work double their allotted hours per week for the same pay package.

Once the employee goes over their allotted time, they can start to unlock additional bonus payments. This can handsomely supplement the base salary and acts as a financial incentive for employees to work more than double their contracted hours per week. While the base salary is paid into a set account (which in the case of families, is generally paid into a joint account held by the husband and wife) there is more flexibility regarding where overtime allowances are paid.

This may present an opportunity for workers to have access to money that is solely for their own use, rather than for savings or family expenses (known as “hesikuri”) – providing an extra incentive to strive for the overtime payments.

Wage increases and promotions are frequently awarded to those who show appropriate levels of commitment to their company – again incentivizing putting in heavy hours. Japanese business etiquette also indicates that it is rude to leave the office before one's boss does so – so if a boss works long hours, their employees must follow suit.

Can Japanese Employees Take Sick Days?

Mandated sick leave is not a government requirement in Japan, and may only be provided as an employee benefit by multinational companies with Western ethos. A government scheme does exist to financially cover employees who suffer serious injuries or long-term illness, but this is not widely publicized.

In the case of short-term illness, employees are generally either unpaid or must use a vacation day to cover their absence. Culturally, sick days are not widely accepted. The attitude of “if you can walk, you can work” is commonplace in Japanese businesses. You are, however, expected to wear a surgical mask to work if experiencing symptoms of contagious illness.

Taking time off for mental health reasons is heavily stigmatized in Japanese society. The mocking term “modern-type depression” was coined in the Japanese media in the 1990s to refer to young workers who developed mental health difficulties as a result of intense working environments. This largely unspoken attitude still very much exists in Japan.

Annual Leave

While Japanese companies do provide employees with paid annual leave, it is exceptionally rare for employees to use their full quota. Employees are often financially rewarded for unused holidays, and in many cases will choose not to take any of their days. A 2018 survey indicated that Japanese workers on average take only 50 percent of their annual paid vacation day entitlements.

Beyond financial incentives, this is largely a workplace culture issue. If none of your superiors take annual leave, it can be difficult to request holidays for fear of being seen as lazy. Annual leave requests are also frequently rejected by managers.

Karoshi, or Death by Overwork

Karoshi seems like a shocking social concept for a developed country, but it is a very real phenomenon in modern Japan. Karoshi covers both suicides as a result of overwork, and death by the body physically shutting down from intense overwork. The first recorded incident of karoshi was the death of a 29-year-old Japanese employee in 1969, with the term coming largely into public use in the 1980s.

The issue was so prevalent that a support hotline was established in the 1980s for those who believe themselves or a loved one to be at risk of karoshi – this is still open and receives on average 400 phone calls per year. In addition, many life insurance policies require a one year gap between being taken out and being active – due to the fear that people might take out a policy shortly before imminent karoshi.

Black Companies

Companies that are notorious for working employees to the point of karoshi are colloquially known as “black companies”. These companies exist across all industries within Japan. They are characterized by their tendency to hire young and inexperienced employees, and then use bullying tactics to retain them under poor employment conditions.

These companies will often set about destroying the reputation of a person who leaves their employment. This is extremely serious in Japan, as the culture is very much based upon associating with those who have a good reputation. A person whose previous employer speaks poorly of them will have extreme difficulty sourcing employment in the future.

Collectivism and Workplace Harmony

These ideas can be difficult for Westerners to understand. If an employee is obliged to only work 40 hours per week and entitled to paid annual leave, why not take advantage of this? In order to understand this mindset, we must explore the collectivist nature of Japanese society.

Rather than striving for individual goals and happiness, as tends to be the focus in Western individualistic culture, the people of Japan tend to strive for collective goals. In the context of the workplace, this might mean achieving particular sales or productivity targets as a company. This collective goal takes precedent over any personal goals that might motivate an employee to leave work on time, such as socializing or relaxation.

The concept of workplace harmony is also extremely important to Japanese people. In order to achieve workplace harmony, all employees must be following the status quo. If one person is working significantly fewer hours than their colleagues (even if they are working their contracted hours) this can be seen as disrupting the workplace harmony within the business.

Similarly, if a person takes their paid vacation days during the year it will naturally fall to another employee to cover their work during their absence. This can create a sense of resentment which disrupts workplace harmony – particularly if the colleague who covers the work chooses not to take any vacation days.

In Western workplaces, it is often considered sufficient to have a polite and strictly professional relationship with your colleagues within working hours. Within the Japanese work culture, your work colleagues are considered another family, and you are expected to socialize with them outside of office hours – increasing the need to maintain workplace harmony through your approach to attendance and work hours.

Amae, or the Desire to be liked by our Superiors

If we want to get very in-depth about workplace psychology in Japanese society, we need to consider the theory of amae. In post-war Japan, men typically devoted themselves fully to their employers, while women typically stayed at home focusing on raising the children. Psychologists point to an extreme attachment style that developed between Japanese mothers and their children during that time, which was then passed down through generations.

The after-effects of this attachment style are referred to as “amae”. Psychologists who subscribe to this theory hypothesize that Japanese children have an intense desire to be adored by their mothers, and this need to be submissive and liked translates long into adult life. Under the theory of amae, a Japanese person’s boss takes the place of their mother when they join the workforce, and the desire to please them above every other aspect of life.

I’ll leave it up to you whether you want to look that deeply into the issue of overwork – but I will say that if the theory of amae holds water in this context, then the Japanese workplace culture of ho-ren-so (getting approval from your superiors on every decision) would certainly feed into it.

Labor Laws

The Labor Standards Act (1947) lays out a set maximum working hours of eight per employee per day. However, companies can and do apply for permitted overtime hours – this has historically been easy to secure. In addition, many companies encourage “off the books” over time, which is not recorded on employees clock-in cards.

A “work style reform” proposed by the Japanese government has led to many amendments being made to existing workplace legislation. These amendments include placing a cap on overtime – and ensuring that any scheduled overtime is agreed in advance with a union representing employees. In addition, employers are required to pay employees at a higher rate in the event that overtime takes place across holidays, if overtime takes place during antisocial hours, or if overtime exceeds agreed hours.

New regulations also aim to encourage rest time amongst the workforce – for example, mandated break time lengths and minimum amounts of paid annual leave. Companies will be required to monitor their employees’ uptake of paid annual leave and can demand that employees take time off if a minimum level of uptake is not reached. Interestingly, many employees in management roles are exempt from these rules – despite the fact that karoshi is prevalent amongst those in high-pressure middle management positions.

Increased authority is to be given to company physicians, who can make recommendations around employees decreasing their working hours or taking a leave of absence for health-related reasons. Changes in legislation also aim to return Japan to its previous state of economic equality by reducing the wage gap between permanent and temporary contract workers.

Companies that violate these workplace reform principles are liable to be fined. These reforms were passed in 2018 and came into effect on a phased basis across 2019/2020. So far, anecdotal reports about how they are enforced are mixed – with some employees reporting that overtime has just been taken off book rather than stopped.

Family Care and Childcare Leave Act

The Japanese birth rate is continually declining (read more about that here) and the government has introduced a number of changes in employment law with a view to incentivizing family planning. These changes include the Family Care and Childcare Leave Act (2010), which entitles new parents to up to one full year off work after welcoming a new baby and limits the number of hours new parents can legally be asked to work.

What is unclear at the time of writing is how this legislation plays out in real working environments – do new parents feel comfortable availing of their leave entitlements, or does the pressure to maintain workplace harmony lead them to work as much overtime as possible?

Changes in Workplace Culture

As Japan moves further away from the traditional “job for life” model, the younger generation is becoming increasingly curious about different ways of making money. At the time of writing, an estimated 17% of the Japanese workforce identify as “freelancers” – in other words, working for themselves rather than for a particular company.

This career choice, in theory, allows increased flexibility in terms of working hours – not working under a particular manager or business ethos allows freedom to take breaks when needed, and to start and finish work at times that suit the worker’s lifestyle. However, all might not be as rosy as it seems in the world of Japanese freelancing – recent survey statistics indicate that 62% of Japanese freelancers have been subject to “power harassment”. This may be a reflection of Japanese workplace culture’s hesitancy to accept new ways of approaching work-life balance.

An ever-increasing number of multinational companies are setting up shop in Japan, and with them, they bring different policies and values systems. In order to coax Japanese employees into leaving work on time, many large multinationals have resorted to novelty measures. Some companies fly drones over employee desks playing annoying music once a certain cut-off time has been reached each evening, and others instruct employees who have been working too late to wear a humorous “cloak of shame” around the office.

Microsoft Japan took the innovative step of trialing a four day work week in August 2019, and reported heightened productivity levels and decreased outputs as a result. The branch returned to its five day work week following the trial but reported plans to experiment with other flexible working arrangements over the next year to find solutions that maximize workplace efficiency.

The popularity of a 2019 Japanese sitcom centered around the concept of leaving work on time has added evidence to the theory that there is a hunger amongst the Japanese workforce to attain more balance. The first series Watashi, Teiji de Keirimasu (No, I Will Not Work Overtime, Period!) has been a hit with Japanese audiences. It focuses on female protagonist Yui Higashiyama, a glamorous young career woman who leaves the office every evening by 6 pm, no matter what.

While such a plotline might be unremarkable to a Western audience, Higashiyama’s regard for work-life balance really got viewers talking in Japan. This is a stark contrast to the previously mentioned Kodoku no Gorume, which glamorized the idea of work being the single most important component of a man’s life.

At the time of writing, Japan is under emergency measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are pointing to this lockdown as a chance for Japan to re-evaluate its workplace culture. For the first time, many Japanese workers are completing their tasks remotely from the comfort of their homes.

Highlighting the fact that this can be done might be the first step towards companies offering the option of flexible remote working on a more permanent basis. This could arguably provide a better work-life balance for many of Japan’s workforce and would eliminate many elements of workers feeling the need to continue working as late as their colleagues. Time will tell whether this dramatic change in routine will have any lasting effects on workplace culture in Japan.

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