Shinzo Abe

Japan embarks on work-hour reform after suicide of woman who did 105 overtime hours a month

The death of 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi, who worked at advertising giant Dentsu Inc, is a watershed moment

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 December, 2016, 3:37pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 December, 2016, 9:43pm

Japan is finally starting to seriously seek ways to curb excessive work hours, with the overwork-related suicide of a young employee spotlighting a long-standing issue that has always been in question but never quite addressed.

The traditional corporate culture in Japan of punishing hours has persisted since the postwar era of rapid economic expansion when hard work seemed to lead to growth.

But that is no longer a driving force with working conditions dramatically changing after the burst of the economic bubble in the early 1990s and the financial crisis in 2008, both of which led Japanese companies to undertake drastic restructuring such as massive job cuts.

Japan worked the third longest hours in 2015 among the Group of Seven industrialised countries, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But the world’s third largest economy’s work productivity was the worst last year among G-7 nations, according to the Japan Productivity Centre.

The aging population in Japan leaves the country at risk of labour shortages, which could add more pressure on future workers.

“Japan is still a country where working long hours is considered a virtue,” said Kazunari Tamaki, a lawyer who specialises in “karoshi” cases, or death from overwork.

“But we need to focus on improving efficiency within fixed hours to boost productivity.”

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The suicide of 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi, an employee of advertising giant Dentsu Inc., due to overwork last year sparked criticism of illegally long working hours and a push for a fundamental reform of working conditions.

She had logged 105 hours of monthly overtime work before jumping from a company dormitory. The labour ministry referred the company and an executive to prosecutors in late December over the suicide.

On Wednesday, Tadashi Ishii, Dentsu’s president, announced he would leave his post next month to take responsibility for the work-related suicide and for failing to achieve a “dramatic reform of overwork.”.

“An excessive amount of work should never happen,” he said.

“I deeply regret and feel responsible for this.”

Among the 34 OECD member countries, Japan’s average annual hours actually worked per worker stood at 1,719 hours in 2015, longer than 1,371 hours in Germany, 1,482 hours in France and 1,674 hours in Britain but shorter than 2,113 hours in South Korea.

According to a government white paper on death from overwork released in October, more than 20 percent of Japanese companies said that the monthly overtime hours per employee exceeded 80 hours, a threshold that increases the risk of death.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made a move to raise Japan’s work efficiency by launching a “work style reform” panel. His government aims to change the practice of long work hours and set strict penalties for companies allowing excessive and inefficient work.

The government also announced in December that it would disclose the names of companies with deaths related to overwork and beef up surveillance on unpaid overtime work.

Following the Dentsu employee’s death, Sadayuki Sakakibara, the chairman of the Japan Business Federation, Japan’s most influential business lobby, said “death by overwork should never happen. I ask executives to take effective measures to redress (the situation).”

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Newly introduced measures to improve work-life-balance at some firms are shedding light on how Japan Inc. could pursue growth without heavily relying on overwork.

Workers at nursing care business firm Saint-Works Corp. in Tokyo wear a purple cape with the time to leave the office written on a paper taped on it, whenever they are planning to stay extra hours.

Sachio Ichinose, 41, says that he is able to leave work around 5 p.m. and pick up his 1-year-old daughter from daycare every day.

“New ideas do not pop up after meetings are extended an extra 2-3 hours. Work becomes productive when it is balanced out with your private life,” he said.

Overtime working hours at Saint-Works have more than halved in the past four-and-a-half years, while its sales and pretax profit continue to grow every year.

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Major trading house Itochu Corp. bans employees in general from working after 8 p.m. and does not allow any work after 10 p.m.

The company introduced early morning working hours in 2013. Its employees who work between 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. are provided a light meal and also paid extra wages equivalent to those for late-night hours.

Work can easily become endless at night, but concentrating overtime on a limited number of hours during the early part of the day helps produce a better performance, the company says. Itochu became the top trading house by net profit for the first time in fiscal 2015.

At computer system developer SCSK Corp., its monthly payment includes an extra 20-hour pay package to discourage its employees from working more than 20 extra hours.

The company also pays extra bonus as an incentive to promote working less overtime and taking more holidays.

A concern among Japanese workers “not to cause trouble” is another factor why they find it hard to resist excessive work, Tamaki said.

“The root is really deep but now is the time to change.”