Japan's efforts to reform work culture see results

Flexi-work, shorter hours among initiatives offered by govt and firms

Ms Naoko Oikawa, a manager with marketing company Willgate, worked reduced hours while she took care of her newborn child.
Ms Naoko Oikawa, a manager with marketing company Willgate, worked reduced hours while she took care of her newborn child. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

Japan's largest advertising firm Dentsu will soon go to court over the Christmas Day 2015 suicide of a young employee who had been overworked and bullied.

The karoshi case is now a cause celebre epitomising the deep- rooted culture of workplace malpractice in Japan, while galvanising a fledgling movement to promote progressive practices at work.

Several companies have taken the lead in offering a four-day work week, with employees clocking the standard 40 hours a week over four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days.

Other arrangements to allow shorter work hours, tele-commuting and flexi-work are now more popular as companies strive to upkeep employee morale and prevent talent attrition, with the job market at its tightest in decades.

The government has also stepped up: It wants public servants to knock off on time on Wednesdays and Fridays, while the Premium Friday scheme urges firms to let their staff leave work at 3pm on the last Friday of the month.

Many firms have long been offering variants of the incentive, including Fast Retailing - parent company of fashion store Uniqlo - and tech firms Cybozu and SignalTalk.

IBM Japan has offered reduced hours since 2004. Employees may choose to work either 60 per cent or 80 per cent of the standard 40-hour workweek, with their salaries pro-rated accordingly.

  • Pushing healthier work-life balance


    Premium Friday

    Companies are urged to let their employees knock off at 3pm on the last Friday of each month, in a campaign that began in February. Hopefully, the early dismissal would also give workers time to go shopping and contribute to the economy.

    So far, more than 530 firms nationwide are taking part.

    No Overtime Day

    The central government is attempting to take the lead by advising public servants to knock off on time on Wednesdays and Fridays, though this serves more as a guideline than a hard-and-fast rule.

    Day of Telework

    The Olympic Games will open in Tokyo on July 24, 2020, and the central government has earmarked this date as the Day of Telework in Japan. Only about 16 per cent of companies with more than 100 employees have introduced such a system.


    Jisa Biz, which means time difference in Japanese, was recently launched to urge companies to implement measures such as flexi-time arrangements.

    It also targets Tokyo's infamous overcrowded commuter trains during the morning rush hour, with an eye towards alleviating the situation by the 2020 Olympics. About 260 firms and municipalities are on board.


    More companies, such as Uniqlo and Sagawa Express, are embracing the four-day work week. Employees clock four 10-hour days instead of the standard five eight-hour days. They are also typically allowed to take up a second job.

Company spokesman Kazuhiko Suyama said this was to support the career and skills development of prized employees. Dozens of staff have chosen to work shorter hours in order to tend to their children or elderly parents, while three people with disabilities are also on board the scheme.

Marketing company Willgate also offers reduced work hours, which manager Naoko Oikawa, 38, said ensured her career development need not be put on hold while she took care of her newborn son.

Software firm SignalTalk has various schemes including teleworking. Spokesman Mie Unno told The Straits Times the initiatives have helped to retain talent, including someone who wanted to quit to take care of his elderly parents.

"At first there was concern the schemes will lead to a reduction in our business output," she said. "But it places trust in our professional employees, and they value the self-management system."

The government hopes to encourage a better work-life balance through Premium Friday, which also urges workers to loosen their purse strings to drive consumption.

Mr Riki Ohtake of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry that runs the programme told The Straits Times that early signs have been encouraging, and the initiative is not just a flash in the pan.

In the five campaigns since the February launch, the number of participating firms has grown almost four times from 136 to 537, involving an estimated 710,000 employees. Although the firms include big names such as Nissan and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp, most are small and medium-sized enterprises.

Department stores like Daimaru and Takashimaya have seen a spike in earnings on Premium Friday, and the number of retailers offering discounts or promotions has risen 60 per cent to nearly 7,500.

Mr Ohtake noted the operational difficulties expressed by some industries. But he said: "We would like to convey the philosophy behind Premium Friday so that such companies, too, can take up reasonable measures."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2017, with the headline Japan's efforts to reform work culture see results. Subscribe