Japan’s Four-day Workweek Proposal Unlikely to Work
Prof Rajaram Panda

Japan and Japanese are known for their famously workaholic corporate culture. There are cases in which companies have forced employees to put extra hours, thereby driving some to commit suicide and giving rise to the word karoshi or “death from over-work”, a term coined in the 1970s. There are also cases where employees voluntarily put extra hours of work for their companies to demonstrate their loyalty and commitment for the company’s welfare, thereby dying of stress, sometimes in offices itself. Though the work culture such as life-long employment system whereby the employees see their destiny in the company’s welfare where they work, and seniority-based promotion system irrespective of merit and performance have lost some of their shines, a modern but yet conservative country such as Japan continues to perpetuate such culture at huge social cost. In this respect, Japan can be seen as a self-imposed regimented society.

Japanese employees often tend not to avail their entitled annual leaves from work for fear of being seen by their colleagues as not showing their commitment to the company in which they work. Another related issue is their neglect to the welfare of their families. Despite former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s commitment towards women empowerment and to bring the untapped women human resource at a time of labour shortage, it did not have the intended result. His “Womenomics” remained almost as a non-starter. In a conservative society such as Japan, mere change in policies had no, or little, effect on the mindset of Japanese men to shed some of their macho mentality. The task of all domestic chores, rearing the children, shopping for home, etc., falls on the housewife’s responsibility. But one thing less known or limited to some people outside Japan is that wives have control over the husband’s purse and decide how the money has to be spent. The salary men, as the company employees are called, have to request the spouse at home even for the pocket money for his evening outings at bars and restaurants after office hours with colleagues and returning home late to see that the children are already asleep. The father who leaves for the office early morning next day has virtually no time to spend with his own children as they would have left for the school.

In order to address this social malady, the government at various times has adopted measures to correct this societal issue, all with limited success. Besides encouraging the employees to avail paternity leaves, providing incentives to people to have more babies to address the issue of declining population in view of the rise in the elderly people, the government has now come up to adopt a proposal for four-day working week to improve work-like balance.

On 18 June, the Japanese government unveiled its annual economic policy guidelines, which include new recommendations that companies permit their staff to opt to work four days a week instead of the typical five.1 Cases of workers either falling ill due to excessive overtime or killing themselves have unnerved the government. The four-day work a week is aimed to address this social malady. When the coronavirus pandemic started ravaging the society, and companies responded to reorient their strategies to some extent by adopting work-from-home formula, it is doubtful if the rigid and traditional work culture shall see any perceptible change. The companies need to see the merit of flexible working hours, remote working, growing interconnectedness and host of other developments in response to coping with the on-going pandemic. The government expects that the extra day off every week would encourage people to go out and spend time and money, thereby boosting the economy. Also, in view of the worsening/ falling birth rate and increase in the elderly population, the population is getting contracted. The government is aware that more and more young Japanese of both genders are either not marrying and opting for their own independent life styles, or marrying beyond marriageable age or even deciding not to have a kid after marriage and continue working (giving rise to the coinage of Double Income No Kids or DINKS), and therefore hopes that by giving an extra day in a week young people can have more time to romance, marry and have kids, thereby address to the issue of falling birth rate and contraction of population.

However, this seems to be a very simplistic approach to address the huge demographic challenge that Japan faces. There is still hope. It transpired that productivity increased even after companies were forced to allow employees to work from home or at satellite offices. For example, Fujitsu cut its office space in Tokyo by 50 per cent when remote working became the norm. But whether this strategy will works remains to be seen as Japan faces labour shortage. Despite this, Japan continues to maintain a restrictive immigration regime as it does not want any disturbance to social cohesion with the presence of increased foreign labour. There is an inherent reluctance in the management to bring about drastic change and overlook the benefits of old approach that has served generations. Language is another barrier that is not that easy to overcome.

The government’s objective for reduced work hours may be noble. But the employees worry about reduced wages and also fear their commitment to the companies could come under scrutiny. Young employees also worry about unpaid overtime or “service overtime”. So, the issue is complicated. The new recommendations also therefore are aimed at allowing workers to spend more quality time raising families and taking care of older relatives.2

Experts are divided on the subject. For example, Hisashi Yamada, a vice-chairman of Japan Research Institute, a think tank, said he does not anticipate a four-day work week to be common in Japan. Yamada attributes this to the shortened week complicating personnel management and evaluation of employees.3 According to a survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), several other major economies have employees work longer hours than Japan, including the US, Canada, Australia and Italy.4 A conservative Japan in many aspects continues to face “something of an epidemic” in which holidays leaves are most likely to be unused because of the reasons mentioned above. The result is low productivity and limited improvement as people take fewer holidays and reticent mindset discouraging labour mobility. The change in the existing norm, if adopted, would mean rewriting labour economics rules.

Japan is not the first country to mull over the four-day week idea. In proposing four-day weeks, Japan joined Spain, which is launching a three-year, nationwide, voluntary 32-hour week experiment, and several other countries have been mulling the prospect. New Zealand’s and Finland’s prime ministers also have floated the idea of a four-day workweek. 5 England’s Labour Party in 2019 campaigned on the idea that workweeks would be shortened in the next decade. A number of companies started adopting the idea, without pay cuts. In August 2019, Microsoft in Japan instituted a temporary three-day weekend, which resulted in 40 per cent increase in productivity and reduced electricity consumption and paper printing.6

Government figures of 2018 revealed that Japanese workers took only 52.4 per cent of the paid leave time they were entitled to, owing primarily to the feeling of being ostracised by colleagues and also unwillingness to adopt to change to the existing life style and work norms. The proposal for a four-day week is aimed to make attitudinal change and usher in a new work culture. The objective of the government could be noble but unlikely to have any effect on ground realities, as was the experience in Abe’s Womenomics. It is also possible that this change in the work rule could have more negative consequences in the form of disruption in family harmony as the spouse would have also to readjust her own life style. This writer is a privy to an elderly couple’s domestic quarrel in Japan after the husband retired from service and the wife felt uncomfortable to see the husband’s face all the time at home and saw his presence as an encroachment on her own freedom to live during the day the way she used to be when the husband was in service. There must be plenty of such cases all over Japan. The bottom-line is that mere change or adaptation of new policy by the government to address the societal challenge is unlikely to accrue the desired result.

Experts, besides labour and management have already voiced concerns about potential unwanted outcome to the new four-day workweek proposal. Another long-term objective of the government for backing the proposal could be to allow more time to the employees to acquire new skills. With an aging population and high longevity, compounded by restrictive immigration policy, a proposal was doing the round for some time that the salary man after retirement should be sent back to the school for re-education with structured curriculum designed to explore possibility of using their past experience in suitable and less stressful manner so that they contribute to the productivity in their fields of specialisation. The idea is also to address increasing labour shortage and lessen social welfare burden on the younger employees who pay high taxes as government needs money to support the health care of the elderly population.

Though employers feel that employees could be motivated to work for four days a week, this may not improve their productivity enough to compensate for the lost workday. Employees, meanwhile, fear pay cuts. 7 The objective of allowing men to spend more time for family-care responsibilities might not result in any gain as they will look for side jobs for extra income because of fear of salary cuts and unwillingness to disrupt their existing life styles.8 This author spent four days with a family of young couple with five kids in Hiroshima in 1979, his first of many trips to Japan, and is a witness to see how the salary man spent virtually no time at home and shouldered no domestic responsibilities, spending time in bars and restaurants after office hours, sometimes hopping from one bar to the third bar the same evening with friends and colleagues, while the wife takes care of all domestic chores throughout the day. It was an eye-opening experience to observe and study how a Japanese family works. Even after four decades since then, the author did not notice any change from such societal norms during his subsequent visits. With such mindset, can one expect any positive outcome from the four-day workweek norm? This writer is not so optimistic about it.

When the surging coronavirus compelled companies to allow employees to work from home, the Suga government mulled over the idea in April 2021 if shorter week working days can gain traction if formally adopted. The government thought the new norms can promote “diversified working styles” and prompt workers with new skills, especially in high-tech industries. In a country with rigid work culture, entertaining changes to the standard workweek would be viewed as treason, something few would have expected even several years ago. The economic impact on some small and medium-sized businesses could be huge and they would be unwilling to give such extra days off. Other businesses might try to cut labour costs, a move that would displease the employees. The possible solution could be to leave the choice to the employee if he/she is willing to work for shorter week days. Even if such a choice is guaranteed, the government’s intended policy is bound to fail for reasons already explained in the commentary.

Yet, all hopes for the new norms to be dissipated can be reversed if one sees Japan’s strong private-public coordination and group-focussed culture that supports the top-down system, very unlike that in the West. The truism, however, is it could be a “generational opportunity” to institutionalise more flexible work opportunity in the West but not quite so in Japan. Japan would be some way off to embrace some drastic change in its old-fashioned work culture.

Endnotes
  1. Julian Ryall, “Japan proposes four-day working week to improve work-life balance”, 22 June 2021, HTTPS://WWW.DW.COM/EN/JAPAN-WORK-LIFE-BALANCE/A-57989053
  2. https://futurism.com/the-byte/japan-encouraging-four-day-work-weeks
  3. Daniel Johnson, “Japan’s government is supporting optional four day work weeks”, 23 June 2021, https://nationalpost.com/news/world/japans-government-is-supporting-optional-four-day-work-weeks
  4. Ibid.
  5. Joe Middleton, “Japan recommends four-day working week to increase productivity”, https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/southeast-asia/japan-four-day-work-week-b1872804.html
  6. Sammy Westfall, “Japan proposes four-day workweek as idea gains purchase amid pandemic”, Washington Post, June 24, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/06/24/japan-four-day-work-week/
  7. Keita Nakamura, “Experts divided as Japan government backs four-day workweek”, The Japan Times, 19 June 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/06/19/business/four-day-workweek-japan/
  8. “Explained: What is Japan’s four-day work week proposal?”, Indian Express, 21 June 2021, HTTPS://INDIANEXPRESS.COM/ARTICLE/EXPLAINED/JAPAN-FOUR-DAY-WORK-WEEK-PROPOSAL-7375887/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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