Employees in Japan are on the clock - but off the record

Staff routinely told to underdeclare when monthly overtime exceeds 80-hour limit

Japan and South Korea battle entrenched mindsets as the younger generation pushes back against the overtime culture. The Straits Times takes a look at the situation in these countries and Singapore, and how some workers and firms are coping.

In 1991, Mr Ishiro Oshima, a young upstart at Japan's advertising giant Dentsu, was pulling overtime shifts that lasted until 6am.

Then 24 and only in his second year at the firm, he had already been assigned 40 clients. On some days he slept only half an hour, and he was not given a single day off for 17 months. He killed himself that August, in what was the first case of death by overwork - or karoshi - upheld by Japan's courts.

Some 25 years later, Dentsu finds itself in the news for the same wrong reasons. The Christmas Day suicide of employee Matsuri Takahashi, 24, in 2015 has become a cause celebre in the fight against workplace malpractice and gross overtime leading to karoshi.

But concerns persist among young employees who fear that the current scrutiny of overwork will be a flash in the pan. Change traditionally has been slow, they say, and workplace habits still appear entrenched among an older generation used to the long hours.

It took a public furore over the 2008 suicide of a worker at pub chain Watami, who had clocked more than 140 hours of overtime a month, for Japan to introduce a law against karoshi in 2014.



Overtime is supposed to be for unanticipated occasions, but in Japan, it's become expected as part of daily duties that nobody can refuse.

PROFESSOR KOJI MORIOKA, from Kansai University, on Japan's overtime culture. Economic stagnation has led to job security fears, driving workers to accept long hours.

And it was under this law that Japan released its first White Paper on the issue last October, containing such startling statistics as this one: Work issues led to 2,159 deaths in the 2015 fiscal year. Yet this could just be the tip of the iceberg.

Of the 1,743 companies surveyed, a quarter conceded that they had employees working more than 80 hours of overtime a month - the recognised threshold for overwork. A Labour Ministry official told Nikkei Asian Review that overtime of more than 100 hours a month is common in white-collar workplaces.

  • 33.1
    Average number of hours each person worked in a week in 2015.

  • 16
    Number of uncompensated overtime hours a month. Sources: OECD data, Japanese Trade Union Confederation

But a lot of this is under the table.

Some employees are routinely asked to clock in fewer hours than they actually worked, in what is called sabisu zangyo, or service overtime, allowing firms to circumvent laws. This is why Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) figures on working hours fail to capture the situation.

The OECD numbers showed each employee in Japan as having worked an average total of 1,719 hours in 2015 - below the OECD average of 1,766 hours and South Korea's 2,113 hours.

Japan's respect for hierarchy means employees tend to follow instructions to avoid being ostracised or seen as "causing trouble", said labour lawyer Kazunari Tamaki.

Economic stagnation has also led to fears over job security and an increase in part-time workers who are promised full-time jobs if they have "good" work ethic.

"Overtime is supposed to be for unanticipated occasions, but in Japan, it's become expected as part of daily duties that nobody can refuse," Kansai University labour professor Koji Morioka told the Associated Press. "People are chronically working long hours because they have too much work to do as staff sizes have shrunk."

The headcount in Ms Takahashi's division was cut from 14 to six, but projects kept coming in. She was working 105 hours of overtime a month before her death. Dentsu and one of its executives may now face criminal action. Its president Tadashi Ishii stepped down last month, and the firm now imposes a mandatory 10pm lights-out policy.

"No job could be more important than life," Ms Takahashi's mother Yukimi said. "I strongly hope for the central government to instruct businesses as soon as possible."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convened a "work-style reform" panel last August and Japan said it will name and shame firms that force more than 80 hours of overtime a month on workers. Next month, Japan will launch a campaign urging firms to let workers knock off early on the last Friday of each month.

There is also a fledgling movement in Japan Inc, with some firms pledging to cap working hours and advocate progressive measures.

The efforts of tech firm Works Applications, for instance, have led to it being named the best workplace in Asia by US-based consultancy The Great Place To Work Institute.

A Works spokesman said it offers its 5,600 employees flexi-time and access to in-house childcare facilities, among other measures. Its enterprise resource planning software, adopted by 1,200 companies in Japan, aims to raise efficiency and reduce man-hours by using artificial intelligence and big data.

Companies such as Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp, Honda Motors and food maker Ajinomoto have also begun telecommuting measures. Yahoo Japan, too, has said it wants to roll out a four-day work week by 2020.

And yet, an online rant by an accounting don shows it will take more than reforms to reverse an entrenched mindset. In response to the White Paper, Professor Hideo Hasegawa of Musashino University said it was "deplorable" for anyone to commit suicide over overwork.

He apologised after being criticised, but not without adding: "I based my judgment purely on my past experience that unless I put up with hard and long working hours, my company would face a crisis."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2017, with the headline 'Employees are on the clock - but off the record'. Subscribe