Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

Japan's Rethinking Its Culture of Long Work Hours

  • Nation’s view on overtime changing, now seen as inefficient
  • Flexible working practices could increase labor productivity

Japan is stepping up its drive to pressure companies into abandoning a culture of long working hours.

Prosecutors this week began reviewing whether Mitsubishi Electric Corp. forces its employees to work excessive hours -- a move that follows an investigation of Dentsu Inc., Japan’s biggest advertisement agency, where a female worker who put in more than 100 hours of overtime in a month committed suicide.

Mitsubishi Electric said in a statement that it will “deal sincerely with the matter” and will monitor work hours closely and educate managers and employees on the issue. The labor ministry will continue to take a firm stance against long work hours, according to a spokesman who asked not to be named due to ministry policy.

The government is also seeking a shift in the corporate mindset to encourage flexibility and boost a labor force being depleted as the population shrinks. Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman, said Wednesday that Japan needs to “end of the norm of long working hours so people can balance their lives with things like raising a child or taking care of the elderly.”

Read how the Dentsu suicide prompted the CEO to resign

While Mitsubishi Electric and Dentsu have been hammered by the public in recent months, the issue of overwork remains widespread, according to Hiroyuki Fujimura, a professor at Hosei Business School of Innovation Management. While long working hours were previously praised as a trait of a hard-working, disciplined worker, perceptions are changing, he said.

"While those in their 40s and 50s may still hold such views, those in the younger generation no longer see long work hours as a good thing," Fujimura said.

Boosting Productivity

The government and business groups will launch a “Premium Friday” campaign in February to encourage companies to let workers leave early on the last Friday of every month to go out and have fun. Some companies are taking their own steps to reduce hours and create a more flexible working environment.

Suntory Holdings Ltd. is expanding its work-from-home program and Japan Post Insurance Co. turns off the lights in its headquarters at 7:30 p.m., the Yomiuri newspaper reported. Yahoo Japan Corp. allows employees to work remotely five times a month and is considering the introduction of a three-day weekend by 2020, according to company spokeswoman Megumi Yagita.

“We’re hoping that employees choose a style that lets them perform at their best, so that we boost productivity,” Yagita said.

Martin Schulz, senior economist at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo, sees companies being driven by practical needs.

“Companies went through cost-cutting, and what’s now left at the core is the remaining workers who are overloaded,” Schulz said. “Companies are now seeking ways to boost productivity, the best results in the best amount of time.”

Nidec Corp., a precision parts maker known for its charismatic and hard-driving Chief Executive Officer Shigenobu Nagamori, is among the companies re-examining labor practices. Because the company’s workers are highly skilled, they can’t be expected to work such long hours, Nagamori told reporters in Kyoto on Jan. 6.

“Our goal is to boost productivity, and cutting overtime is only a means to do
that,” Nagamori said. “We’re not telling our employees they have to go home
early. They still need to do their job.”

— With assistance by Emi Nobuhiro

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.