28 October 2016
Fast Retailing hopes to offer some Uniqlo employees four-hour workdays. Photo: Bloomberg
Fast Retailing hopes to offer some Uniqlo employees four-hour workdays. Photo: Bloomberg

Japan saying sayonara to long working hours

Japan’s notorious, and occasionally fatal, culture of overwork may soon go the way of the slowly dying out tradition of lifetime employment, with the backing of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Long days in the office followed by long nights drinking with colleagues have been blamed for several of the country’s ills, from a lack of babies to stagnant productivity, the Financial Times reported.

Meanwhile, a tight labour market is shifting the balance of power from companies to workers.

Trading house Itochu hopes to lure recent university graduates with earlier starting and finishing times, while printer maker Ricoh is banning work after 8 p.m.

Fast Retailing, operator of the Uniqlo clothing chain, is looking to introduce a four-hour day for employees who want a better work-life balance.

“Even if working hours are short, we will pay more to the employee who produces a higher result. Long hours of work do not necessarily lead to higher performance,” the newspaper quoted chief executive Tadashi Yanai as saying.

The corporate efforts to improve conditions chime with Abe’s campaign to shake up the labor market as part of his push for economic growth.

Civil servants, too, will benefit.

Health ministry employees will be banned from working after 10 p.m. from October after an attempt to clear offices by switching off the lights failed.

The government has submitted a bill making it mandatory for workers to take at least five days of paid holiday a year.

Part of the bill requires high-income employees in certain sectors — such as banks and brokerages — to be paid according to performance rather than the number of hours worked.
Proponents say it would enhance productivity, but critics say it would increase overtime, which would no longer need to be paid for.

Japan still has instances of karoshi — death from overwork — and many employees still feel guilty leaving the office early.

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