Could Japan ever embrace a four-day week?

Traditional attitudes towards employment mean Japan might not be suited to the four-day working week trend spreading worldwide


Japan work week

Microsoft Japan has earned international plaudits for its recent trial of a four-day week, most notably for the 40 per cent employee productivity boost which closely followed in its wake. But in a country where being on perpetual call is as culturally entrenched as geishas, the notion that the bulk of corporate Japan will be keen to follow the example of a foreign firm is questionable.

So says Ryosuke Endo, Tokyo-based global chief human resources officer at international recruitment consultancy JAC Group, who notes that the flexible working arrangements now familiar in the West remain unchartered waters for much of Japan.

“For us, being seen in the office is the expected norm and the idea of being equipped with company laptops so we can work at home from time to time is still alien. Although we know we have a productivity problem, the four-day week itself may not be the right strategy for us,” he says.

Japan’s productivity still needs a boost

The current Shinzo Abe government has already declared war on karoshi, or death by overwork, setting a 100 hours a month legal cap on overtime at larger firms. Yet to Mr Endo, it is next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, which are expected to attract more than 600,000 foreign visitors, which may mark a more significant tipping point.

“The Abe administration undoubtedly needs more firms to embrace remote working before next summer if the capital’s entire transport system isn’t going to collapse,” he says. “But by the time the visitors have gone home, I’m hoping that a more flexible attitude to work will already be well advanced in many companies.”

While Japan’s position at the bottom of the G7 for GDP per hour worked cries out for people policy reforms, the country’s innate aversion to risk will not be easily overcome.

“Microsoft Japan is selling hard the notion of ‘scrum management’, which is a high-risk approach to software development that attaches no blame if expensive product trials go wrong,” says cross-cultural Japanese business consultant and author Pernille Rudlin, founder of the Rudlin Consultancy.

“But this is a very strange and even unwelcome notion in a country where risk avoidance, together with detailed planning, record-keeping in triplicate and the constant watching of your colleague’s performance is endemic.”

Culture norms against a four-day week

While working hours in manufacturing, for example, are governed by shifts, service sector roles, where the country’s low productivity is most marked, are rarely governed by formal job specifications. With most workers tending to be generalists, rather than specialists, it can be difficult for them to gauge when their job is done and dusted for the day.

Staying late at the office simply reflects the genuine happiness that staff feel when they can help their company grow and prosper

To the Japanese, says Ms Rudlin, staying at the office until the boss goes home, partly to earn brownie points, but also in case you can be of service to your team, is the established way of working. This doesn’t sit well with the European practice of knocking off early when things are quiet.

In the West, it is largely millennial workers who have helped drive the adoption of more flexible working patterns, particularly in talent-starved organisations.

Yet in Japan, where deference to elders is customary, younger generations may be more wary, notes Helen Macnaughtan, senior lecturer in international business and management at SOAS University of London, who sees scant evidence that fresh-faced Japanese are also striving for change.

“Research indicates that Japan’s millennials are only slightly more risk averse as their fathers and grandfathers when it comes to work. While they may say they reject the workaholic norm, the majority are keen to take the well-paid, high-status jobs that have traditionally guaranteed a job for life with the same firm,” she says.

“Given that only 3 per cent of men across all age groups take their full paternity leave for example, it would be wrong to assume the bulk of Japan’s young workers share the European obsession with work-life balance.”

Japanese working culture highly gendered

Dr Macnaughtan fears the Japanese government’s overtime cap, which is backed by legal penalties, may in practice simply “drive excessive working hours underground”. This is particularly true when it comes to male workers, she says.

“To a large extent, it is Japanese men in ‘regular’ jobs, so-called salarymen, who bear the brunt of the country’s disproportionately long working day, yet many of them continue to believe that having no personal life is a reasonable sacrifice in return for job security for life.”

In a country where women tend to be far better represented amongst the 40 per cent of employees who are defined as “non-regular” workers, receiving less money, training and development, but typically working fewer hours, she notes that employment remains a “highly gendered issue”.

Vacation Deprivation

Long hours due to real love of the job?

To Steve Crane, founder of Business Link Japan, which helps international organisations set up and develop in the country, shortage of talent will ultimately dictate how many employers follow Microsoft’s lead.

“The mental health implications of excessively long hours are severe, but it’s the scarcity of high-
calibre job candidates that is starting to cause extra problems for foreign firms,” Mr Crane says.

While he believes “softer” sectors, such as tech or creatives, may ape the Microsoft trial in a bid to attract interest, the bulk of the business community will take a wait-and-see approach.

“Financial services, for example, tend to be very conservative. While bigger employers may eventually opt for the four-day week, it may be introduced in a highly bureaucratic manner which could undermine the whole notion of flexibility,” says Mr Crane.

While Japanese firms take a polite interest in Western ways of working, he sees no appetite for a widespread catch-up with the more creative employment practices now sweeping across America and Europe.

“Like many Westerners who know the country well, I have found that the level of pride in doing a good day’s work is absolutely unique to Japan,” says Mr Crane.

“While there still may be an element of presenteeism, for the most part, staying late at the office simply reflects the genuine happiness that staff feel when they can help their company grow and prosper.”