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Japan's labor shortage eats away at back-breaking work culture

47 Comments
By Stanley White and Kaori Kaneko

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"Companies had created a system that rates you on hours worked, and that's how you got ahead in the corporate world," said Yoshie Komuro

Not how many hours you worked, how many hours you were at work. This must have been an oversite in the translation. "At" is easy to miss.

Japan also leads G7 productivity gains for that period.

Japan is still at the bottom of the G7 for productivity.

37 ( +39 / -2 )

What Chip Star said.

Japan has been a white collar underachiever for the last 40 years. Long hours spent at work do not equal higher productivity.

32 ( +33 / -1 )

I for one hope this labor shortage increases.... because I'm sick of the "old ways", where a person's capabilities matter less than their stamina on the job. I used to work at Daiwa Securities.... everyone stayed until like 8 or 9 at night. I left everyday at 5:30PM.... luckily I'm a foreigner, but it didn't help because I became an outsider. That said, I got to spend time with my kids on a daily basis. I'd rather be an "outsider" with the company and be an "insider" with my family. I then left Daiwa and joined a foreign brokerage.... it was a lot better.

21 ( +21 / -0 )

Back breaking culture? Japanese people do have a reputation for working long hours, but they don’t work hard.

19 ( +20 / -1 )

My Japanese brother inlaw is lucky in that he has a cushy government job with all the conditions attached, and cant be fired unless he actaully breaks some laws or refuses to do his job (which he does)

but he is also very head strong, he takes all his vacations every year, takes them when he wants, and even took all his wife's maternity leave as a husband, which are all perfectly legal under the local government which he works. After returning from his last maternity leave he was confronted by a fellow worker who demanded he apologise for taking long leave making them do extra work as a result, He angrily replied, if you or anybody else dont have the sense to take what conditions are given to you under the law then your the problem, not me, if management wont hire an extra workers to take up the slack for vacationing staff then youll need to complain to them. Never heard a word from that guy again. There was also a mandated pay rise recently yet management decided to hold it back , when he confronted management and reminded them thats its illegal to do so under local government laws the pay rise was forthcoming a week later. He now looks at himself and so do some of his co workers as the unofficial union representative, which he really doesn't want. Hes just standing up for himself and the conditions hes entitled too. Hes loved by some hated by others , but he doesnt care because he knows theres nothing they can do about it but snicker behind his back as they dont have the guts to confront him headon about it., firing him isnt an option as they dont have any legal excuse to do so, and to do so would hit them with an ufair dismissal claim. If more Japanese were like him companies would have no excuse but to change their ways. Hes one of a few that are slowly forcing change in this draconian work culture, Man I love that guy

18 ( +18 / -0 )

Japan has no concept of brains over brawn. The boss much prefers workers to stroke his ego, go to pubs and talk shop and spend 14 hours a day pretending to be busy when all work to be accomplished could be done in about 2 hours. Sad but true, why would any foreigner want to work for a Japanese company.

16 ( +19 / -3 )

Long hours spent at work do not equal higher productivity.

This quote should be on posters plastered on all subways and trains here in Japan

16 ( +16 / -0 )

Interesting how this article doesn't mention wage decline and precarity under the abenomics approch to neo-liberalism.

The link below has some charts and statistics that can provide some structural content to the far too anecdotal and cheer-leading tone of the news article.

https://apjjf.org/2018/6/INOUE.html

15 ( +17 / -2 )

Use Reiwa as a final chance to move away from archaic, tyrannical , going through the motions drudgery to something that promotes competence, meritocracy and meaning and you may just find Japan is back, like real quick. There should be an army of consultant firms training managers to do exactly that across the nation. There’s still time. Theres a little thing called technology that may help too. Drop the ball for another ten years though and it’s not going to be pretty.

15 ( +15 / -0 )

Strange little rah-rah for Shinzo article that fails to mention declining wages, the 100 hour a month overtime "cap," and the failure to implement existing labour laws.

How does cutting corporate tax but increasing consumption tax help working people? How does cutting full-time jobs and replacing them with low-paid part-time jobs for "working mothers" help?

A cynical person would think that there's an election coming up...

14 ( +17 / -3 )

Japan is still at the bottom of the G7 for productivity.

Especially when you count those unaccounted overtime, productivity rate will become much lower.

13 ( +14 / -1 )

Good. Attitudes change with every new generation, and the free market allows the businesses to adapt. Those who adapt become successful, those who can't, fail. That's how the market works. The important thing is that there is the demand for change.

12 ( +12 / -0 )

Some schools in Japan are making teachers clock out at 4:30 pm. They are only doing this so that on paper, it seems looks like teachers are not being overworked. However, the pressure is still there to continue working, even after having clocked out.

11 ( +11 / -0 )

Japanese people do have a reputation for working long hours, but they don’t work hard.

one of the first things I heard when I came to Japan was "Japaense work long hrs but dont work (smart) efficient hrs" I was puzzled at first as it didnt really match what many thought including myself. Within a few years of working I now knew the truth.

11 ( +11 / -0 )

wtfjapan.....I salute your brother in law , he sounds like an awesome guy that Japan definately needs more of.

11 ( +11 / -0 )

The article is so wrong and nothing but a PR, what is mentioned in the article is true for a very few Japanese companies. Manufacturing companies have not and will never change.

Most people willingly work overtime to augment the low salaries without which they will be unable to make a decent living on their after tax salary.

The government takes so much from the people and provides very little.

11 ( +11 / -0 )

Japan's labor shortage eats away at back-breaking work culture

Finally some good news

Many firms now ask employees to focus on their clients rather than their bosses, set their own goals instead of waiting for orders and allow them to work from home, avoid overtime and take more vacation.

That's common sense

I for one hope this labor shortage increases.... because I'm sick of the "old ways", where a person's capabilities matter less than their stamina on the job.

Agree 100%

I used to work at Daiwa Securities.... everyone stayed until like 8 or 9 at night. I left everyday at 5:30PM.... luckily I'm a foreigner, but it didn't help because I became an outsider. That said, I got to spend time with my kids on a daily basis. I'd rather be an "outsider" with the company and be an "insider" with my family. I then left Daiwa and joined a foreign brokerage.... it was a lot better.

GOOD CHOICE!

10 ( +12 / -2 )

I agree with Cameron that things have improved. Not sure if I'd say dramatically but step by step, company by company. The attitudes of older men running companies may not be shifting as quickly as we'd like but I've observed enormous change in how young hires view their employers--namely, that their positions are provisional. Increasing job mobility, employees leaving safe seinshaiin positions b/c they found better offers or working conditions elsewhere. Younger workers, including men, who regularly skipped nomikai or took parental leave. Or the slightly older chiefs who resisted managerial promotions or job transfers away from their families.

Now that I'm back at a university, I can see this from the other end--Japan's shrinking pool of graduates are frankly spoiled and far less willing to tolerate Showa-era conditions. They're actively seeking careers or employers that will allow them a more sensible work-life balance. Many former graduates I've kept in touch with have changed jobs within a few years if their employers are not living up to their expectations. This would have been heresy even 20 years ago.

Is the labor shortage a bit overblown, being used by politicians to import cheap labor and please their corporate benefactors, sure. But the fact remains that there is increasing competition for a shrinking pool of young Japanese and this is leading to gradual improvements. That said, you don't need to watch Shoplifters to realize there are a quite a few have-nots who aren't benefiting from these changes. Those marginalized since the Koizumi reforms first started to take effect. If the improvements discussed are only for the 60% of regular employees is that actually progress?

9 ( +9 / -0 )

Propaganda news, nothing has really changed as above have noted, overtime cap was "increased", wages are lower, the work culture now has a happy face sticker plastered over it. Peal that off and things are worse than before. Less staff expected to do more, never heard of a company encouraging staff to get further education (aside from foreign companies). It's an election year and the PR people are setting a narrative of happy, happy, joy, joy. Would probably work if the population weren't so focused on survival.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

A friend of mine's father-in-law was a proper old-school salary man type and since he retired, he has absolutely devoted himself to his grandchildren. She thinks he is trying to make up for all the time he missed with his own kids. It made me feel rather sad.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

wtfjapanToday  10:21 am JST

Exactly this. People need to fight for what's right here. Only problem is that anyone who does so is usually marginalized by his/her colleagues for being a 'maverick'.

Its a cowardly act to take such matters as opportunity to solidify their position within the group. For Japan to truly change for the better, people will need to grow a spine first like the man that wtfjapan describes.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

 took his wife's maternity leave as a husband, which are all perfectly legal under the local government which he works. After returning from his last maternity leave he was confronted by a fellow worker who demanded he apologise for taking long leave making them do extra work 

He took all 52 weeks, yes that should be a norm. Japan always complaining about declining birth rate but less steps are taken.

 if management wont hire an extra workers to take up the slack for vacationing staff then youll need to complain to them.

Those overtime or difficulty in taking paid holiday due to workload, it is because employer/management fault that won't spent extra to hire more people. Not employee that take valid legal paid holiday.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

average work hours have fallen at the fastest rate in the Group of Seven industrialised economies, beating the average among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That’s easy to do when you’re so far up there! It’s like a 100kg person in a weight loss battle against a 100 lbs pounder! Who do you think would win the most weight lost trophy???

7 ( +7 / -0 )

The biggest problem with Japan, and what discourages many to seek job in a Japanese company is exactly these old fashioned ways of thinking and absolutely horrid working culture.

If they can use common sense and solve this problem, it will be a much more attractive place to seek jobs as a human, rather than a robot.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

I love my job here but getting REALLY tired of the work culture. Have an extra meeting until 730pm? "Okay can I come in two hours late that day then"... sucking teeth. "But we all get here at 830. You can too." Suffer together for no reason. The only other foreigner I work with has already had the Kool-aid too and buys into the suffer together nonsense. He has permanent employment and I want it, so I just have to keep my mouth shut, suffer from stress and mild depression and hope this pays off for permanent employment in another 2-3 years.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

Long hours spent at work do not equal higher productivity.

This quote should be on posters plastered on all subways and trains here in Japan

that would just stress out the working population more, nobody likes to be told the truth, yet continue to suffer under a system because its what is expected.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

wtfjapan, Just what I was hoping to read in this Abe soft-sell article. Keep at it. Everyone one who is not an unfireable cushy government job risks that job by doing what you are doing. What can be done about that, I wonder?

6 ( +6 / -0 )

That’s easy to do when you’re so far up there! It’s like a 100kg person in a weight loss battle against a 100 lbs pounder! Who do you think would win the most weight lost trophy???

Lol, you knailed it.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

A friend of mine's father-in-law was a proper old-school salary man type and since he retired, he has absolutely devoted himself to his grandchildren. She thinks he is trying to make up for all the time he missed with his own kids.

Maybe, but that sounds like fairly standard grandparental behavior regardless of previous working situation.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Some schools in Japan are making teachers clock out at 4:30 pm. They are only doing this so that on paper, it seems looks like teachers are not being overworked. However, the pressure is still there to continue working, even after having clocked out.

It should be simple, like teacher room will be locked after 5:00 pm but school management just failed to do this.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

To make it short in 4 words:

More quality, less quantity!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

@8T: Outdated perception. Things have changed dramatically in the 30 years I have been working in Japan. Now my bosses leave before me, even when I need their advice or approval to move something forward. The trains going home get crowded now beginning about 17:30. It is a huge change.

3 ( +8 / -5 )

This generation has never been hungry, poor, or suffered from poverty on a level near 3rd world nations do.

@thepersoniamnow - and? What is your point? No they have not, so they do not need to live a life resembling those who do.

Economic advancement has given us the opportunity to step away from grinding poverty and enjoy life more, not worry about where our next meal is coming from.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Back breaking...come on! I've witnessed co-workers wasting hte day away pretending to work and actually starts working after the official working hours. Companies and government offices should start evaluating people by their outputs and not by the number of hours they park their butts in the office. One government employees even told me that they tend to refrain from suggesting new ideas because it means more work. No need to perform when you can just wait for your promotion after reaching the predetermined age for promotion.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I swear, it’s as if the MSM is under contract to roll out this labor shortage farce every two weeks.

2 ( +7 / -5 )

This story is outdated introducing the situations of Japanese companies in the past.

Ah, Schoperhauer, are these horrible working conditions a thing of the past? What a hoot! Travel to most parts of Japan, Fukui, Niigata, parts of Hokkaido, Osaka, and you will find that a HUGE majority of firms are still stuck in the Showa era, with people going home at 10, 11, or 12. Gosh, I did some part time here in Kitakyushu a while back and that was when they were leaving, and ARE leaving. A really acute labor shortage has to hit before wide spread change for the workers comes. But as a conservative you don’t like that, huh Schopenhauer?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Cameron

I agree. This story writer seems not reading Nihon Keizai Shinbun. The writer is not up to date.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

I hope this will be an opportunity for many Nikkei communities outside of Japan -- where there are young and old people looking for opportunities, to see the land of their ancestors.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

What can be done about that, I wonder?

if the government mandated what is done in government jobs to all private enterprise jobs in Japan this would solve a lot of problems.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

After decades, at long last, a start is happening. Good for the future labourers. Not staying late does not equal not like work. Hope the point is clear. It is a surprise to have to say in a so envied workers by tourists/foreigners.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

nobody in the pic looks like they work

0 ( +0 / -0 )

GoodlucktoyouMay 9  08:56 am JST Cut off US control, buy Iranian oil, and build factories in China where Labour is cheaper and quality is better. All this population decline nonsense is rubbish. Japan needs to diversify.

"Cut off US control" of what? Oil is a fungible resource that essentially goes into a selling pool. It doesn't matter where you buy it. Japan already built factories in China and elsewhere in Asia. It doesn't need any more factories abroad.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Anyway hacking a 10 or 12 hour day should start their own business-I did and I get more time to do as I wish and have a life!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Japan has no concept of brains over brawn.

"Japan" does not have any ideas or concepts. Individual Japan hold to ideas and concepts. We are not a monolith. We are not "one hundred million hearts beating as one" to use a wartime slogan.

You would not be reading articles like this if all Japanese thought the same thing.

The "backbreaking work culture" associated with Japan is not limited to Japan. Recently, articles about the 996 work culture in China have been in the news. (996 means 0900-2100 six days per week.)

Some industries in the US and the UK are notorious for work hours that make the Japanese look like slackers, software development and financial services, being two notable cases. Both countries have the equivalent of karoshi (death by overwork).

Further, what is described in English as a "Japanese pattern" is really largely a Tokyo pattern. Major cities such as Nagoya, Osaka, Fukuoka, etc. are much more laid back than Tokyo.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Cut off US control, buy Iranian oil, and build factories in China where Labour is cheaper and quality is better. All this population decline nonsense is rubbish. Japan needs to diversify.

-4 ( +3 / -7 )

This generation has never been hungry, poor, or suffered from poverty on a level near 3rd world nations do.

-7 ( +4 / -11 )

This story is outdated introducing the situations of Japanese companies in the past.

-17 ( +3 / -20 )

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