Yoshihisa Aono could be a model for Japanese executives. The offices of Cybozu, his software company, would appear staid were they in Palo Alto. But they are radical for central Tokyo, where each day waves of black-suited Stakhanovites make their way to grimly utilitarian offices. Slap-bang in the centre of Cybozu’s headquarters are stuffed-toy monkeys and parrots. Staff in casual wear and trainers perch on stools sipping coffee and tapping away at laptops. Mr Aono himself leaves work at 4.30pm to see his three children. He takes paternity leave, unlike most Japanese fathers. Good lord, he even goes on holiday.
To many Japanese, Mr Aono’s work style will seem extreme. To many in the West, it is Japan’s long working hours that are outlandish. Japanese work notoriously hard—to which the abundance of comatose passengers on the commuter trains attests. Many men work so late, or get so sozzled after work to relieve stress, that they don’t make it home. Hence the ease with which, early the next morning, you can buy a cheap shirt and tie in the convenience stores in the business districts of Nagoya, Osaka and the capital.
Twelve-hour days are common. Holidays are stingy—just ten days a year when you start out at work—yet Japanese workers, on average, take only half their due. Japan leads the world in paternity leave—up to a year. Yet barely 5% of men take advantage of it, and then usually for just a few days. Japan has given the world the term karoshi, or death by overwork.
Japan’s work system dates to the end of the Second World War, when defeated soldiers swapped uniforms for suits. Salarymen became the shock battalions of Japan’s economic miracle, rebuilding the country during an era of turbocharged growth. Companies needed lots of male workers quickly (women worked as secretaries and then became homemakers once they had found a husband—often at work). In return for absolute loyalty, workers at big companies got regular wage rises, generous benefits and the guarantee of employment for life. Company ties were sometimes stronger than family ones.
The model now holds Japan back. It is miserable for male workers, especially as companies no longer make the money to offer new employees the same benefits and guarantees. It is even worse for women. Those who succeed in a male-dominated workplace risk all if they have children, after which it is hard to pick up careers again. A large number of women don’t return to work at all. As for Japan’s young, many opt out of corporate life to open or staff boutiques, cafés and the like. There they accept low pay rather than toil in bleak offices. None of this helps companies either—Japan has the lowest productivity of the G7.
Government and businesses increasingly acknowledge a problem, but struggle to deal with it. It is telling that “Cool Biz”, a ballyhooed campaign launched in 2005 to get people to take off ties and jackets at work, was motivated not by a need to please workers but to save on summer air-conditioning. These days, bureaucrats dress down during the sweltering summer months, but employees at banks and the like rarely dare.
Pressure to create a better work environment is growing. After a young female employee at Dentsu, Japan’s advertising behemoth, committed suicide in 2015, a court ruled that it was because of karoshi. That was the cause of much hand-wringing. But more broadly, at a time when an expanding economy and a declining population are creating severe labour shortages, companies with a reputation for grinding work struggle to attract staff. One woman, a senior executive who barely saw her children as she climbed the corporate ladder, wonders whether the sacrifices she made were worth it.
Some companies really are trying to change. A consultant on matters of employee well-being says she has never been so much in demand. Panasonic, which in 1965 was the first Japanese company to introduce a five-day week, now lets people work from home and wear jeans in the office. Yet powerful instincts of conformity and self-sacrifice still mark Japanese society. Panasonic admits that few are willing to leave work early or wear jeans before other colleagues do the same first. People in authority need to lead by example. Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, shuts her offices each evening at 8pm; staff have no choice but to leave. By contrast, after weeks of debating radical change, the Diet (parliament) recently passed greatly watered-down legislation. Overtime hours were capped at an exhausting 100 hours a month.
Work harder, at reform
Japanese continue to work long hours because, almost without exception, big companies continue to judge employees by input not output. They base promotion and pay not on merit, but on age and years at the company. It is almost impossible, by law, to fire incompetent staff hired on permanent contracts.
Only a drastic overhaul of the labour system will do, not tinkering at the edges. Above all, the law needs to make it easier to hire and—especially—fire, so that people move jobs much more than now. That would shake up the relationship between employers and employees. Productivity would rise. Workplaces would be more diverse. Women would have many more chances. But so, too, would men: for instance, fathers could play a greater part in bringing up their offspring. With better work prospects, couples might even have more babies, an obsession with Japanese demographers worrying about the country’s falling population.
The time is ripe for change. The economy is in relatively good shape. Japanese companies are keen to adapt to be competitive abroad. Yet too many of Japan’s politicians and corporate titans are male, hidebound and timid. Many workers are undemanding. Conformism remains powerful, at work more than anywhere. Change is coming, but it is coming all too slowly.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “When everyone is the last one out”.