Toru Hanai / Reuters A businessman takes a nap on a bench in Tokyo, June 8, 2007.

Overworked in Japan

Why It's an Epidemic

No workers in the world are as loyal to their employers as the Japanese. Physical health, family life, and spare time are all subordinate to the success of the company. But the socioeconomic costs of such strong work ethics are now outweighing its benefits, and the government knows it. After reshuffling his government in August, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has put “work style” reforms at the top of his policy agenda, with a focus on capping Japan’s chronically long work hours. “We'll tackle this issue with a strong will,” Abe statedin a recent press conference, “no matter what.” His determination makes sense: as odd as it may sound, to boost a stagnating economy, Japanese workers should work less and sleep more.

Japan is a sleep-deprived nation. Statistics from Sleep Cycle app users show that the Japanese spend, on average, 5.52 hours in bed per night—the lowest level in a ranking of 50 countries and below the seven hours of minimum sleep recommended by doctors. Further, according to the World Sleep Federation, Tokyo workers sleep 36 minutes less than New Yorkers and 54 minutes less than Parisians. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see Japanese workers sleeping while standing in the metro or napping at work—inemuri—where, according to the OECD, 13 percent of Japanese workers spend more than 50 hours each week. Only about four percent of their Italian and German counterparts do the same. And roughly 30 percent of Japanese employees clock more than 40 hours of overtime per month, with some professionals in the IT industry doing even more than 80 hours of monthly overwork.

According to current law, overwork should not exceed 45 hours a month, but in practice, workers are asked to exceed the ceiling so often that the cap is meaningless. A recent survey released by the Health Ministry reported that illegal overtime work was confirmed at 4,790 of 8,530 workplaces surveyed. To make things worse, overwork is considered to be proof of attachment to the firm and is seldom financially

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