Why do Japanese Workers Work Long Hours?

Dr. Hiroyuki FUJIMURA
Hosei University


Currently, the Japanese government is promoting the “work style reform.” Because Japanese male workers are working long hours, the reform aims to realize work-life balance by correcting this situation. According to the Labor Force Survey conducted by the Statistics Bureau of Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in 2015, about 20% of male workers in their 30s and 40s worked 49 to 59 hours per week and 15% to 16% of the workers worked 60 or more hours per week.


Working 60 or more hours per week means that they work overtime for 4 hours every day. If a worker works at his company until after 9 pm, he will get home after 10 pm. It is impossible to say that it is a healthy working style. In addition, long hours working among the workers during their child-rearing periods is a cause of declining birthrates. To realize appropriate working hours for male workers is an urgent issue for the Japanese society.


Then, why do Japanese male workers work long hours? Generally, workers’ working hours are determined by relationship between workload and the number of personnel. If the number of personnel is small compared to the workload, per capita working hours will increase to deal with the workload. Although there is an opinion that companies can increase the number of personnel if their working hours are too long, the reality is not so simple. If one’s ability does not match the content of work, increasing the number of such personnel will not solve problems of long working hours immediately.


There are three causes of long working hours of Japanese male workers; (a) the membership-based employment system; (b) their attitude toward work; (c) fulfilling selfish requests from customers.


With regard to the membership-based employment system, as I mentioned in the former essay, when a Japanese company hires a regular employee, the company expects the employee to become a good member of the company. A good member is a person who helps his co-worker’s job and accepts with his supervisor’s requests with pleasure. At work places, new tasks that have to be dealt with emerge almost every day.

Managers decide to whom the new tasks should be allocated while considering each worker’s workload. At the same time, the managers want to allocate such tasks to a talented subordinate, because talented subordinates always complete their tasks efficiently, showing their high productivity. However, even if a worker processes his work efficiently, his working hours become longer because of increased workload. An idea, “I want to be a good member,” makes working hours longer.


The second cause comes from an individual worker’s attitude toward work to complete his task perfectly. In other words, the way of working where a worker aims for a 120 percent result by thinking that he must, or may, include this point and that point although a 100 percent outcome is expected for him. Even if his supervisor says, “You don’t need to go that far,” his own feeling makes him seek the 120 percent result. In this way of working, it is not easy to correct long working hours.


The third cause comes from relationships with customers. Sometimes there is a request from a customer, just before closing time, saying, “Could you bring that immediately?” At that time, regardless whether it is urgent or not, the worker has to deal with it immediately. It is based on an idea, “It is natural to deal with request from a customer immediately.” Each worker works according to his daily work schedule, but if once an unexpected request takes place and he has to respond to the request immediately, his original plan has to be changed. As the worker processes his original task after dealing with the request from customer, it is natural that his working hours become longer.


Japanese people do not think current working style is preferable. They think such style has to be changed somehow. It can be said that the first step is to change your behavior as a customer. Except for urgent cases, it is important to say, “You can make it tomorrow” or to say, “Please do it when you have enough time” to show your flexibility.


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