The nation that never rests: Japan’s debate over work-life balance and work that kills


Summary: After 1973, employers in Japan who had been promising to adopt a weekend system began to withdraw those plans. Thus began a yet-unfinished debate in Japan about how to balance need for employee rest with the demands of employers to increase economic output. The Liberal Democratic Party’s current approach to the overwork problem, including its recent labor reforms—which emphasize granting legal flexibility to employees without creating firm regulations to prevent employers from demanding excessive labor—reflects the continued refusal of employers and political leaders to accept the need for employee work-life balance.

In 2014, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo promised foreign investors in London that he would “reform labor market regulation[s] in order to make working conditions more flexible.”1 After Abe released a proposal which included a so-called “white collar exemption,” the Asahi Shimbun pushed back with a front-page story suggesting that the new law removed the existing limits on the amount of work employees could be called upon to do. In the beginning, trade unions also resisted. Shintani Nobuyuki, director of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), stated bluntly: “we don’t need this new system.”2 Resistance failed to prevent the reforms that passed the Diet on June 29, 2018.

Tokyo Review, 2017

A battle over Abe’s proposed reforms occurred in the spring of 2018. By this time, the bill revising the Labor Standards Act—the core of the then-current work time rules—had been stalled in the parliament for two years. Opposition to the bill, from activists including family members of karoshi (death by overwork) victims under the banner of the Zenkoku Karoshi wo Kangaeru no Kai (The National Association of Families Reflecting on Death by Overwork), cracked in June when Rengo accepted the introduction of a merit-based pay system for “highly professional” jobs. Drafters of the bill defined this group as employees with annual salaries of at least 10.75 million yen (approximately $96,000) in fields such as research and development, securities analysis, and investment consulting—or about 10 percent of all employees. Rengo and its allies did secure concessions. This salary threshold was much higher than the 4 to 7 million yen ($35,500 to $62,000) proposed by business groups, which would have included up to 40 percent of all workers. The bill also included language guaranteeing 104 days off annually for those subject to a merit-based pay system. Still, the most glaring flaw in the June 2018 law is the new 100 hour monthly cap on overtime—20 hours higher than the limit previously prescribed by the Ministry of Health and Welfare.3 Although this cap only applies to large companies, at the moment, the cap refers to all employees during special busy times (up to six months per year), which are determined by companies themselves. Moreover, the highly professional jobs mentioned above are essentially exempted from caps on and compensation for overtime.4 Critics such as president of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Zenroren) Rikio Kozu have repeatedly lambasted the administration, Rengo, and Keidanren (The Japanese Business Federation) for refusing to take seriously the need for reduction in work time and realization of work-life 5 balance for all Japanese employees.6 The vice chairman of Zenroren, Iwahashi Yuji, went so far as to call the professional system in the bill “modern slavery.”7

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