Overtime Work in Japan – No Easy Way to Reduce Working Hours

Japanese workers are said to be hard working. One of the reasons is the long working hours. So-called full-time employees work some 2,000 hours per year, which is 400 hours longer than their counterparts in Germany or France.

The number of working days for one year is 231, if we subtract—from 365 days of the year—holidays such as 104 days for two-day weekends, 15 days for national holidays, five days for year-end and New Year holidays, five days for summer holidays, and five days for other paid leave. If we divide 2,000 hours by the number of working days, the Japanese work about eight hours and 40 minutes per day.

In reality, however, not many people constantly work eight hours and 40 minutes every day. People may sometimes work on the weekends, or they may not take paid leave. They may work until midnight when they are very busy. Regrettably, workers who can afford to take the above-mentioned holidays are very fortunate in Japan, to begin with. There are even statistics (“The Labor Force Survey” by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications) showing that approximately 20 percent of workers in their late 20’s to early 40’s—i.e., in their most productive years—work more than 60 hours per week. “More than 60 hours per week” means exceeding the legal limit of 40 working hours by as many as 20 hours. If they do not work on the weekends, they do four hours of overtime five days a week. If they start working at 9:00 in the morning with a one-hour lunch break, they are working after the finishing time of 18:00 until 22:00 every day.

Of course, not all workers do overtime. On the other hand, according to the research I have conducted, 85 percent of full-time employees work overtime. In other words, full-time employees who do not have overtime work are in the minority.

There is also another problem which is rather difficult to see from the statistical data. The above-mentioned 2,000 hours are basically those with overtime pay, but people in Japan do considerably long hours of overtime work without such payment (overtime without pay). According to the research I have conducted, about half of the workers who do overtime have more than one hour of overtime without pay, at least.

When asked about the reasons for overtime, the workers who do overtime indicate too much work as the number one reason. That is to say, there is too much work that cannot be done before the finishing time. Some people interpret this to imply “Japanese are inefficient.” I would not deny that.

On the other hand, it is not reasonable to assume that all Japanese are inefficient. Even an efficient worker needs to do overtime work if the absolute amount of work is too great.

I have recently conducted research on that issue as well, looking into the characteristics of the work done by workers with substantial overtime and/or long working hours, as well as their thinking. What I have found is the following.

First, the workers who are mostly engaged in coordination with others and/or other companies work long hours. It means that they do not have enough time to do creative work such as casting their ideas into shape and preparing their materials, as they have to spend considerable hours attending meetings and making arrangements. In Japanese companies, meetings are not only for making decisions; meetings are deemed important as opportunities for sharing information and understanding with each other. As a result, meetings are held over and over again on the same subject. Several meetings are held before decisions are made.

Second, managers are not able to concentrate on management. Legally speaking, overtime work should be done based on an overtime order from the supervisor. In reality, many cases of overtime work are recognized by the supervisor after subordinates have actually done the work. This problem is caused by the way managers do their work. They are unable to properly manage their subordinates. Many middle managers have their own clients in the sales department, for example. It is common for middle managers in Japan to be player-managers, as is sometimes the case in the world of sports. With managers unable to manage, it is natural that working hours for these managers as well as their subordinates become long.

Third, there is the problem of the people who take their job seriously. Those who set a high target for their work, or who have more interest in work than leisure tend to work long hours. And in Japan there are many such workers. The above-mentioned overtime work without pay exists partly because workers with a strong sense of responsibility voluntarily do overtime so as not to apply for the overtime pay. Some people bring home their work to do.

How, then, can we reduce working hours, even if only slightly? Unfortunately, there is no fundamental solution for working long hours.

According to my research and analysis, it has been confirmed that direct measures for the working hour management are effective. They include “No Overtime Work Day (no overtime work on a certain day of the week), “warning to the sections with long working hours,” and “compulsory lights-out at the finishing time.” On the other hand, indirect measures—such as “management of the working hours by ID cards” and “counseling on working hours”—have not reduced the actual working hours.

In summary, under the current circumstances, persistent measures, which have already been introduced by some companies, are the best path to reduce working hours.

By Kazuya Ogura
Associate Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Waseda University

Published: 06 Feb 2012


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