Saving Japan from the fate of death by overwork

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The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Communist Party and the Bank of Japan all agree on one principle; the way Japanese people approach their work should change.

Labour reform is Japan’s “biggest challenge” according to Prime Minister Abe. When I met with representatives of the Bank of Japan in Tokyo recently they told me it is also Governor Kuroda’s top priority.

On the other side of the political divide is the Japanese Communist Party, which is fully committed to the opposition alliance aim to bring down the Abe government.

It describes workplace problems in stark terms: “Under the tyrannical rule of large corporations… workers are afflicted by long hours of work and excessively heavy workloads that could result in karoshi (death from overwork).”

The Communist Party complains about the problems of forced overtime, a lack of female participation in the workforce and a lack of job security. This strikes a chord with many hard working Japanese people and may explain why the party did well in recent elections and now has 14 seats in the Upper House of Parliament.

Death from overwork is rare but many people face hardship trying to balance their jobs with care for children or elderly relatives. An employee who hopes to rise in a corporation is often expected to work between 10 and 15 hours a day. Combined with commuting and afterwork socialising, that leaves little time for household work, the overwhelming amount of which is still done by women. Japanese men do some of the least housework of men in any developed country.

Foreign investors do not especially care if Japanese men clean the bathroom or do the washing up. But they are concerned that inefficient work practices hold back Japan’s economy. Take the view of Fisher Investments, an independent investment adviser with US offices in Washington and California. Its recent report on Japan complained about “protectionist regulations promoted by strong vested interests that discourage competition and a byzantine labor code that discourages companies from hiring new workers or effectively competing with each other.”

Mr Abe wants to change things. Earlier this month he unveiled a package which puts particular emphasis on helping workers who do not have secure full-time positions, including ensuring equal pay for equal work and raising the minimum wage.

Other reforms aim to boost female labour force participation, such as reducing excessive work hours and encouraging telecommuting.

These labour reforms form part of the third arrow of Abenomics – which is actually lots of little arrows, aimed at many targets.

The ultimate goal is profound social change within Japan, a process which is not easy to measure.

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