Abe walks the talk on work-life balance

Japanese PM takes second summer holiday as govt extols need for better work practices

TOKYO • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is making his government's campaign for better work-life balance a personal one.

This week, he went back to his vacation home in the mountains west of Tokyo for a second summer break.

Having spent eight days last month at his residence near Lake Kawaguchi, 100km from the capital, he returned there on Tuesday. Apart from end of war commemorations on Monday, he has no official engagements until the closing ceremony for the Rio Olympics on Aug 21.

That is more than two weeks off, making it the longest summer vacation for a premier since Mr Junichiro Koizumi was in office over a decade ago, the Nikkei newspaper said.

Mr Abe's escape from the city heat comes as the government extols the need for changed working practices, in part to bolster the fertility rate and pull more women into a shrinking labour force.

LIFESTYLE CHANGE REQUIRED

The government is asking women to work and raise children at the same time. If you don't change the lifestyles of both women and their husbands, you cannot make this target achievable.

MR MASAMICHI ADACHI, a senior economist at JP Morgan Securities in Tokyo.

Efforts to curb excessive working hours have been welcomed by economists, though it could be years before results are seen.

"The government is asking women to work and raise children at the same time," said Mr Masamichi Adachi, senior economist at JP Morgan Securities in Tokyo.

"If you don't change the lifestyles of both women and their husbands, you cannot make this target achievable," he added.

The average Japanese worker takes 8.8 paid days off a year, less than half the average entitlement of 18.4 days, according to a government survey. In an economic policy package published last week, the Cabinet Office vowed to tackle long working hours and enable more people to work remotely as part of its target of sustaining the population around 100 million.

Mr Motosada Matano, director of global communications in Mr Abe's office, said work reforms are a bigger initiative than just getting people to take vacations.

Still, he added: "Taking longer vacations has long been strongly recommended in our government and has become our common practice... It's good for promoting tourism as well." Keidanren, Japan's most powerful business lobby, joined the campaign by sending out a notice last week appealing to members to get their employees to take more time off - specifying at least four days in a row.

Even so, a government panel on working practices will probably steer clear of pushing for the market deregulation that could boost labour mobility, improve productivity and spark innovation.

Businesses may also be less receptive to ideas about tackling the pay differential between lifetime employees and other workers, Mr Harris said, and employers would likely fight any changes that raise their costs.

Tokyo University's Professor Yuichiro Mizumachi, who specialises in labour law and served on a government panel on labour reform in 2013, said there would be debate on setting a legal upper limit on working hours.

He said: "Measures to increase labour mobility could lead to employment instability and a temporary fall in consumption. That would run counter to Abe's economic policies, so I don't think the panel will discuss them in concrete terms."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2016, with the headline 'Abe walks the talk on work-life balance'. Print Edition | Subscribe