Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

The working world

The Working World: Will new laws improve work culture in Japan?


Published on January 17, 2019

Workers around the world now have an array of apps and devices that let us tackle tasks on the go, anywhere, anytime. Yet most of us don’t feel any freer than our desk-bound moms and dads did decades ago. So if it’s not technology that keeps us tethered, what is it?

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So far, the novel tech coming out of Silicon Valley hasn’t eased the tensions of modern work. In fact, some argue that our dependence on our devices is making our working lives worse. But no matter where you live or what kind of work you do, everyone’s job can lead to burnout sometimes. In talking with workers around the world, Dropbox researchers have heard from people who are struggling to make their work work for them.

Though workers everywhere have many problems in common, the way we deal with stresses often depends on which part of the world we call home. In our new series, “The Working World,” we’ll look at how different cultures deal with the challenges of modern work in unique ways, and how countries are adapting to address the problems. Here in part one, we’ll explore how Japan’s recent work style reform laws are affecting office life for everyone from temps to executives.

A lot of workers sense that they can’t leave the office before their boss does.

How much work is too much work?

To get perspective on workplace culture in Japan, we spoke with Sho Uehara, Japan Marketing Team Lead at Dropbox. Sho says that while remote work and flexible hours have become an integral way of working at many U.S. companies, a lot of Japanese workers sense that they can’t leave the office before their boss does. Now, some companies are “pulling the plug” to send the signal that it’s time to power down. “At a certain time, all of the PCs will get turned off,” says Sho.

What led to these expectations? In November 1968, when the unemployment rate reached a record low of 1 percent, companies were compelled to offer training and the security of lifelong jobs to attract young workers. That led companies to expect a lot of loyalty from their “salarymen” in return. That loyalty translated to long hours of overtime and sometimes having to accept transfers to new cities without their families. 

Since then, the pressure to work long hours has become so extreme, more and more people are working around the clock. One telecom employee was reported to have worked as many as 37 hours straight without sleep. As a result, some are literally dying to meet deadlines. The phenomenon of death by overwork is known as karōshi. In wake of recent cases of karoshi—such as the widely reported suicide of a 24-year-old woman who had logged 105 hours of overtime in a month—there has been a growing outcry for action on work style reform. 

Even after this new law, workers are still allowed to put in 13 hours a day, every day.

Limiting overtime and closing wage gaps

In June 2018, Japan passed a new law that places limits on overtime hours and increases incomes for temporary and part-time workers who don’t get the same benefits as full-time staffers. The law has three key pillars:

  1. "Equal pay for equal work" to eliminate wage gaps 
  2. A cap of 100 hours a month on overtime, 720 hours of overtime a year. 
  3. Exemption for white-collar workers with annual incomes of over 10.75 million yen

Let’s back up and unpack that. 100 hours of overtime is 25 hours per week, or 5 hours every weekday. In other words, even after this new law, workers are still allowed to put in 13 hours a day, every day. For some, though, the willingness to work overtime—or to be seen working overtime—is tied to the promise for promotional and financial reward. 

So, although the work reform law is designed to address the problem of overwork by limiting overtime, it’s inadvertently inspired a different reaction. For some, the overtime pay had already become a big portion of their compensation, so they’re choosing to stay longer hours at work to maintain that level of income.

"Craftsmanship is very ingrained in our culture."

Clashing with a culture of craftsmanship

The question is: Can any law be effective at countering cultural forces that have shaped societal values for decades? Though a lot of us might think the idea of repeating the same task over and over is a recipe for burnout, the Japanese worldview has historically championed this value as a necessary part of honing one’s expertise. Unlike the U.S. where the “Aha!” moment of creative discovery is most prized, in Japan, the ultimate goal is refinement and learning with every iteration.

“Craftsmanship is very ingrained in our culture,” explains Sho. “It tends to be that way about food, or swords, or kimono fabric. People are always thinking of new ways to improve something.”

Though Sho believes the craftsmanship is driven by creative passion, in Japan, it’s less of a light bulb moment in time, and more of an everyday approach to problem solving.

“You try to think of new ways to become more efficient,” says Sho. “For instance, if you look at a production system, they ask why five times, and really drill down to underlying problems or issues that you want to try to solve. Then we just repeat the process, and that will reveal the higher-quality product. I think Japanese people tend to place value on that underlying concept.”

Changing demographics could reduce the Japanese workforce by 30% over the next 50 years. 

Bowing to market forces and labor shortages

As part of the national work-style reform efforts, a number of Japanese companies have been rolling out new initiatives. Dentsu Inc. is experimenting with a monthly one-day holiday. Alps Electric Co. is reducing extra work hours and will use the money saved on overtime to pay for bigger bonuses. Hitachi, Asahi Breweries Ltd., and supermarket operator Ito-Yokado Co. plan to give employees more breaks and downtime between working shifts. Some even encourage them to catch up on sleep with 20-minute power naps at their desk, a practice known as “Hirune.”

In addition to the concern for the workers’ well-being, there are two other factors driving change—labor shortage and marketplace competition. With an aging population that’s been declining continually over the past eight years, Japan is struggling to find new workers to replace those that are retiring.

According to a recent article in the Japan Times, these changing demographics could reduce the Japanese workforce by 30% over the next 50 years. In the face of these growing labor shortages, companies now have to work harder to keep their employees from leaving in search of better work-life balance with their competitors or going freelance.

“Japan had about 11.22 million freelancers age 20 to 69 as of February 2017, up about 5% from a year ago. That’s 17% of the nation’s working population”— Japan Times, 2017 

The tension between hierarchy and innovation is especially relevant. 

Preparing for the future of work

In 2016, Adobe conducted a survey of 500 Japanese Gen Z students and 200 of their teachers about the students’ prospects in the workplace in coming years. A majority of students and teachers said they don’t feel the students are ready for the future. Although they also agreed that creativity will be an increasingly important factor for success, fewer than half said they’re currently engaged in creative work. 

But Gen Z workers aren’t the only ones to recognize the growing value of creative skill sets. Noriko Ogawa, a Gen X Marketing Assistant at Dropbox says, “I feel like improving my creative skills for the future, such as self-solution skills, analysis skills, communication skills, and so on.”

Though it’s hard to pinpoint why workers feel anxiety about their future role in the workplace, it’s clear they’ll be dealing with fundamental changes, both cultural and technological. 

“In my personal opinion, the work culture isn’t going to change over night,” says Sho. “This is a highly complex and multi-layered challenge. In a very hierarchical society with diverse generational value sets and widening technology literacy between the older and younger generations, there seems to be no equilibrium that allows both sides of the generation spectrum to prosper due to the various legacy constraints.”

“Many established enterprises are feeling the urgency for the change or else they could be disrupted quickly,” says Sho. “So my hope is that the tension in the need for change hits the peak point and we start seeing the series of changes follow. Then we could create a work environment where the younger generation can become more creative and have the louder voice in the business decision making process.”

“Over the past 18 months, I’ve had the opportunity to oversee the Japan market through the eyes of a third-party observer,” says Le Tran, Head Of Communications for Asia Pacific & Japan at Dropbox. “It’s a fascinating economy that is going through a phase of tremendous transition. The tension between hierarchy and innovation is especially relevant. There is an obvious conflict between preserving the unique culture of craftsmanship, tradition, attention to detail—while also responding to a fast-moving, digital-led world that is obsessed with newness. As the future of work unfolds in Japan, I hope the country finds ways to harmonize the different tensions, where the skills of refinement and craftsmanship can co-exist alongside entrepreneurship and innovation.”