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Japanese Business Culture Blog

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The problem with long working hours in Japan
Pernille Rudlin
Dec 04, 2013 04:17 AM
Shunsuke Takahashi, formerly of McKinsey and Watson Wyatt, now professor at Keio University, has started a new column in the business magazine Diamond titled "Why Japanese workstyles are weird"(in Japanese).

His first article deals with the legendary long Japanese work hours. He points out that actually Japanese average working hours per head have fallen below Italy and the USA - but I believe this is mainly to do with the rise of the temporary, often part time worker (now 36% of the Japanese labour force).

As he says, the reason that long work hours are still seen as a problem is that those who are working long hours are more "workaholic" than they are committed to their jobs - worried about whether they are in control of their workload, whether they are negatively impacting colleagues and feeling unable to go home when it seems everyone else in the team still has work to do.

He sees this as a question of capability or competence (noryoku) rather than "yaruki" (motivation). Young employees are told to go and visit a customer and if they seem reluctant,have their motivation questioned. But as he says, the days when just frequently visiting a customer will get the business in are over.

Customers are seeking solutions, and often junior staff have no idea about how to go about proposing or framing solutions. They are also afraid of asking their seniors for help as the workplace culture is often one of "gambaru" (to try your hardest) - so all they get from their boss is "Gambatte!" - with its implication that everything can be overcome by simply trying harder and the young employee is therefore not trying hard enough.

Takahashi says this gambaru mentality comes from the export oriented manufacturing era in Japan, where there was a strong unifying, centripetal force, where everyone wanted to be equal to everyone else, and there was a promise of long term reward.

With the rise of the service sector, there is a more centrifugal force, where in order to effectively sell to customers outside the company, there is a need to understand the customer, which is hard for Japanese companies to do when their own workstyles are so different, and inward facing.

One further dysfunctional factor he points to is the distinction between seishain (permanent, lifetime employees) and contract workers in Japan. Seishain tend to be male, doing two peoples' jobs in order to earn a salary which supports his family. Takahashi wonders what will happen when the workforce reaches a point where the split is 50/50 between contract workers and lifetime employees. Wives will feel the need to work as permanent employees in order to support the family lifestyle. There are also more male contract workers. The gap in salary between permanent and contract workers may need to shrink, and there will have to be an adjustment in workplace practices.

He will go on to describe in forthcoming articles what kind of worklife choices need to be made. I will be following them carefully, as so far, what he says absolutely chimes with what I have been thinking, and I will make sure to share them further with our English speaking followers.

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