Japan is known for its traditional and rigid work culture. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has forced employers and workers across the globe to rethink how we work and interact with one another. Tan Ming Hui of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore explores whether the pandemic could change Japan’s work culture for the better.
Daily grind in Tokyo: Work-from-home plans could save commuter time better spent on sleep, rest and maintaining work-life balance (Credit: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA/NTB)
Even before 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the Japanese government was already encouraging remote work as part of its labor reform measures, although most companies were slow to warm up to the idea. Due to the Covid-19 crisis, remote work became more common and normalized in Japan, as well as in other parts of the world.
More Japanese corporations have made the transition towards more flexible working arrangements as well. For example, technology company Fujitsu announced its “Work Life Shift” program, a permanent work-from-home plan designed to increase workers’ flexibility and autonomy.
One major benefit of remote or hybrid work is alleviating the burden on public infrastructure, particularly the transport system in urban centers, thus reducing carbon impact, congestion and time wasted in traffic jams. The average Japanese worker spends 71.8 minutes on their daily commute. The time saved could be better used in more meaningful ways such as sleep, rest and maintaining work-life balance.
The shift to more remote work can also catalyze the digitalization and modernization of workplaces, which can increase efficiency in many businesses. In the long term, companies may enjoy cost savings on rent and utilities. It is estimated that every worker who works from home saves a company US$22,000 a year. Moreover, remote work saves money not just for the employer but also the employee. The average worker might save US$4,000 annually by spending less on petrol, car maintenance, coffee, lunches and clothes.
The rise of the four-day work week
In June 2021, economic policy guidelines published annually by the Japanese government included recommendations for companies to provide a four-day work week option for workers. This idea has also been gaining traction in other countries such as New Zealand. In addition to a happier and a healthier workforce, it may even improve productivity levels. In 2019, Microsoft Japan tested a four-day work week, which boosted productivity by 40 percent. Panasonic has also announced that it will start giving interested employees a third day off.
A shorter work week has other benefits for the Japanese economy as well. The labor force would be able to dedicate more time to retraining and reskilling, which can help prepare them for a transition to higher-growth sectors. Faced with an ageing population, Japan’s workforce is shrinking rapidly, and key industries are facing labor shortages. The Japanese workforce is predicted to decrease to 68.75 million in 2030, down from a peak of 87.26 million in 1995. It has thus become essential for workers to stay productive for as long as possible to cushion the demographic pressure.
More free time could contribute to an increase in domestic consumption and other economic activities. Young people in Japan are keen to take on side jobs as a supplement to traditional employment. This could lead to more diversity and fluidity in the labor market and also promote entrepreneurship. Furthermore, a shorter work week can give younger people more time for social interaction and family, which may encourage them to date, marry and have more children, which would serve Japan’s efforts to address the challenge of its ageing demographics.
Overcoming a culture of long working hours
Japan is one of the world’s most overworked nation, with the average worker clocking over 2,000 hours a year. The post-war recovery of the Japanese economy was built on a system of seniority-based wage and lifetime employment. This required hard work and high levels of loyalty and obedience from employees. Collectivism — putting the group’s success before one’s own — continues to be highly valued and embedded in Japanese culture. The “lost decade” of the 1990s, however, saw a stagnation and shrinking of the Japanese economy. During this period, Japanese employees worked even longer hours to avoid layoffs and unemployment.
Japan’s culture of long working hours has given rise to karoshi, or death by overwork. The term was first recognized in 1987, and Japanese workers dying from chronic overwork have continued to make headlines since then. In 2015, karoshi claimed a record high of 2,310 lives.
Even if more firms started adopting a four-day work week, the overtime work may just be brought back home. In fact, workers around the world have complained that remote work during the pandemic negatively affected work-life balance, with some employees experiencing heightened stress, fatigue and burnout as they have struggled to establish a clear boundary between work and personal time. For many Japanese workers who switched to remote work due to Covid-19 restrictions, the culture of long working hours simply translated to long virtual meetings and working overtime at home. To address these, the Japanese government should consider introducing "right-to-disconnect" regulations.
Closing the gender gap
Globally, working mothers are affected disproportionately by the pandemic. During lockdowns and closure of childcare facilities, working from home while their children were also attending lessons in the same space posed a huge burden for parents. Studies show that working mothers have taken on more additional childcare responsibilities and may face more employment penalties in the long run. Japanese women are also more likely to make professional sacrifices due to the guilt arising from their sense of responsibility for childcare.
When he was prime minister, Abe Shinzo introduced the “womenomics” campaign, which aimed at the advancement of women in the male-dominated realms of politics and the economy. The reforms did increase female participation in the workforce to a record of more than 70 percent. Most of the jobs, however, came with relatively lower salary, few benefits and training, and little job security. Female workers are also disproportionately represented in the front-facing sectors that have been hardest hit by Covid-19 such as in tourism, hospitality, entertainment and retail. As a result, women account for at least 66 percent of job losses due to the pandemic.
Despite “womenomics" promising to make women “shine”, Japan ranks 120th in the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report 2021”, among the lowest in the East Asia and Pacific region and the worst among G7 industrialized countries. The ambitious goal of having 30 percent of women in senior positions in public and private sectors by 2020 was delayed by up to a decade.
Theoretically, remote work or a four-day work week option has the potential to increase or retain women’s participation in the workforce. To close the gender gap, however, corporations must supplement flexibility with policies to promote equity and predictability. For example, Japanese firms may not want to offer a choice to employees regarding remote work or a four-day work week. If more female workers choose to work more flexibly than their male counterparts, they will likely be even more overlooked for a promotion or excluded from important decisions because they are not physically present in the office. To avoid such scenarios, both male and female employees should have the same flexible schedule. Employers could also mandate that meetings and work trips are given enough advance notice so that parents can make childcare arrangements accordingly.
Moreover, Japanese women must be given access to training and reskilling opportunities and be allowed to move beyond from the traditional support roles of clerical and secretarial work. Japan would also benefit from more female political representation which could lead to more women-friendly policies and reforms. Female political participation in Japan is among the lower globally, and in the latest election, women accounted for only 9.7 percent of lawmakers in the lower house.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of flexible working options have not been the great workplace equalizers that many Japanese women have been waiting for, given the enduring pressures of having to juggle work, childcare and household responsibilities. Nevertheless, policymakers and employers can seize this opportunity for change to reimagine and improve Japan’s future work landscape.
Chan, Jeffrey Kok Hui. (April 22, 2021) “Adding Value: Living with Intelligent Machines”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Inoue, Yuhei; and Swanson, Steve. (August 19, 2021) “The Tokyo Olympics and Japan’s Quest for Unity in Diversity”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Lim, Christopher H; and Tan, Ming Hui. (October 15, 2020) “Post-Covid-19, Will Urbanization be a Thing of the Past?”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Tan Ming Hui
S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU)