Japan Attempts to Persuade Its Workers to Work Less


A strange new theory has been roused in the struggle to jolt Japan’s sluggish economy and population growth: be less diligent. At least that’s what the public has taken away from the government’s recently announced plan to table a law in parliament which, if implemented, will require workers to take a minimum of five paid holidays annually.

Such a vacation may seem measly to foreigners, but Japanese employees would deem it to be downright luxurious. Chalk their devotion up to unrelenting workplaces where staff members fear harsh criticism, and even unemployment, as a penalty for taking time off. A recent article in The Guardian noted that the nation’s entangled economic and population declines are attributed, in part, to a ferocious corporate culture that leaves workers with scant time to start families. The piece went on to note that 22 percent of Japanese toil over 49 hours a week, second only to South Korea’s merciless 35 percent, and far ahead of America’s 16 percent and France’s 11 percent. The author then quoted Erika Sekiguchi, an all-too-typically overworked Japanese employee who spends 14 hours a day at the office, as saying “Nobody else uses their vacation days.” She added that she used only eight of her 20 vacation days in 2014, a staggering six of which were used for sick leave.

These slavish working standards have not only impacted Japan’s economic and population trajectories. And aside from preventing many people from starting families, it has also ripped existing relations apart. An older Economist article cited a precedence setting incident in November 2007, where a wife could legally claim that her husband had literally been worked to death. The man was Kenichi Uchino, a Toyota employee who collapsed at the workplace at 4 am, having told his wife that “The moment when I am happiest is when I can sleep,” before dying days later. Records show that he had accumulated 80 hours of monthly overtime since the preceding May. He was 30 years old and left two children, aged one and three, behind.

The court accepted the claim filed by his wife, Hiroko Uchino, and compensated the family. The term karoshi, or “death by overwork” became widely used since the highly publicized ruling. Although karoshi had been recognized as a legal cause of death in the 1980s, only 4 percent of applications were successful. Two decades later, the percentage of successful applications had increased tenfold, to 40 percent.

And aside from the pending holiday ruling and karoshi compensation, Japanese culture is also growing more lenient in a simpler, everyday practice: workplace naps. This past summer Tokyo-based renovation company called Okuta had granted employees permission to take 20 minute naps at their desks or in the staff lounge. Another firm called Hugo Inc., in Osaka, has even more generously allowed workers to take half-hour snoozes anytime between 1pm and 4pm. Such policies become more commonplace, but even when it comes to siestas many Japanese workers aren’t slacking off: businesses like the Tokyo Ohirune Café Corner offer secluded sleeping nooks for working women at a rate of 160 yen for every ten minutes of use, along with a fee of 100 yen for pajamas. Who knows? Maybe such renowned “nap salons” will help make employees’—and aspiring entrepreneurs’—dreams come true.

—Kyle Mullin

Image: “209 [suits in the rain]” by Evan Blaser (Flickr used under CC license, cropped)

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