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Japan needs drastic labour reform

In the UK, we may be used to to seeing office workers out on the town after a day’s work, but in Japan, the after-work scene is rather more hardcore.   

In Tokyo, late of evening, you can see thousands of Japan’s black-suited salarymen letting their hair down, with untucked shirts, ties dispensed of, knocking back the drinks, normally spirits, rather than the British pint. They can be seen staggering around the streets, before setting off home, or maybe straight back to the office after buying a new shirt from a convenience store (konbini).

This drunken dance is the relatively harmless outlet for their work-related stress, but karoshi, or death by overwork, is the darker and more overlooked result. For the first time, the government published a report into the scale of karoshi. It discovered employees put in over 80 hours of overtime a month at almost a quarter of companies surveyed. At 12% of the firms, the figure rose to 100 hours and these numbers probably underestimate the problem. Less than a fifth of the 10,000 companies contacted responded, which is within response rate norms, but means firms with even worse overtime figures may have been precluded from the study.

In the first quarter of last year, 93 people committed, or attempted to commit suicide, because of overwork. These are only the cases where the government has officially recognised that families are owed compensation; activists believe the number is far too low. Other workers die from stress-related diseases.

It is true to say that in recent years, things have improved somewhat; people are now more frequently paid for overtime, but they still have to do it. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, says that changing the working style in Japan is one of the main aims of labour reforms that he plans to introduce and Yuriko Koike, the new governor of Tokyo, wants to improve the city’s work-life balance and has banned workers in her office from staying past 8pm. That’s nice of her.

However, it is very difficult to overhaul business practices when the culture values face time and dedication to the job far ahead of performance, something we might call presenteeism. A 42-year-old IT worker, says: “The company is like a big team. If I leave work early, someone else has to shoulder my work and that makes me feel terribly guilty.”

Another problem is that the shrinking and ageing of Japan’s population means that there is an increasing labour shortage. Ironically, all this overwork does little for the economy, because (thanks to the inefficient working culture as well as low use of technology) Japan is one of the least productive economies in the OECD, generating only $39 dollars of GDP per hour worked, compared with America’s $62. So the fact that workers are burning out and sometimes dying is pointless as well as tragic.


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