LONDON: A young woman, newly recruited late last year by powerful ad agency Dentsu in Tokyo, tragically committed suicide. Her death, linked to overwork, has given rise to a debate among the Japanese about their work habits.
A particular object of scrutiny is the long hours workers put in at the office, never daring to be the first to leave, or to knock off before their immediate bosses.
More than a fifth of Japanese companies surveyed in a government study acknowledged that some staff work more than 80 hours of overtime a month, a level officials consider a threat to health.
Matsuri Takahashi, the Dentsu trainee, had put in more than 100 hours of overtime each month in the nine months she had worked at the company, her family claimed.
NOT JUST SHORTER HOURS
Such self-scrutiny is practically a national pastime in Japan, surpassed only by fretting about how the rest of the world views the country and the fortunes of favoured teams during the baseball season.
So it was hardly surprising to find that a symposium on Japan held in Tokyo last week included a panel discussion on the country's work culture and whether it needed to change.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the purpose of any reform should be to work more productively - and not just to work shorter hours. Given its demographics, Japan needs to work more efficiently, and spending more time in the office is irrelevant to that goal.
But corporate culture in Japan has always been about the group and consensual decision-making. Most decisions are taken collectively, which means they are usually highly time-consuming.
Staff also fear missing out if they are not in the office, which is why the entire country takes vacations at the same time: Golden Week in May and Obon, the annual Buddhist festival in August.
One attendee at last week's symposium, an executive at an electronics company, said his company's policy was now to encourage teleworking since employees were spending at least two hours a day commuting.
The founder of another company announced that he had got rid of meeting rooms, thereby making meetings physically impossible and thus shortening the work day. A third executive pointed out that eliminating chairs would also cut the time spent in meetings, while allowing for greater flexibility and leading to more rapid decision-making.
Another participant noted that when Rakuten, the largest Japanese e-commerce company, switched to holding its board meetings in English, these meetings dropped to below an hour. (Though someone else observed that the time saved was more than offset by the need to explain everything all over again in Japanese, given how low the standard of English proficiency is, forcing people to spend even more time in the office.)
The local government in Tokyo is doing its bit to encourage staff to go home earlier by turning off the lights at its offices at 8pm.
Meanwhile, as participants debated the virtues of such reforms, the Bank of Japan was holding one of its big policy board meetings.
Senior central bank officials claimed to see signs of increased productivity as the country attempts to embrace shorter working hours, and department stores eliminate practices such as retaining staff to press the buttons on automatic elevators and placing human signboards on crowded streets.
LONG HOURS A WAY OF LIFE
Working long hours has been a way of life since the end of World War II (one subject that is not widely debated in the country), when the Japanese people were united in their desire to rebuild the nation, and were willing to do whatever it took to do so.
At a time when manufacturing was at the heart of economic growth, it made sense to put in long days. In an assembly-line culture, less time inevitably means lower output.
But today, output is hardly just a function of time, and putting in more hours does not mean much.
Without increasing productivity, Japan will not grow and its standard of living will fall, even if people spend less time commuting on still-crowded trains.
Come mid-August, when the summer heat is most intense, it will be Obon, a time to commemorate the spirit of one's ancestors. No doubt Japanese workers will ask for their ancestors' forgiveness for slacking off.
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