Japan in the Face of Breaking Into New Working Culture

By Alecsandra Tubiera 

The land of the rising sun, Japan – in its entirety is often viewed as a place filled with extraordinary ideas and innovative inventions. Behind these brilliant beginnings are hardworking and efficient people who work under the circumstance of a work environment that is stereotyped as “inconvenient” and “heavy”. However, with an ever-changing landscape of cultures, Japan has yet to break into a new yet sustainable working environment.


Humble Beginnings

As mentioned, some share an image of the Japanese work environment that is based on “simultaneous recruiting of new graduates” (新卒一括採用) and “lifetime-employment” (終身雇用) models used by large companies; with the culture having a reputation of long work-hours and strong devotion to the company. Historically, this environment was said to reflect the 1920s economic conditions, when major corporations competed in the international marketplace and began to accumulate the same prestige that had traditionally been ascribed to the government service in the Meiji Restoration.1

By the 1960s, employment at large companies had become the goal and the pursuit that required a mobilisation of family resources and great individual perseverance to achieve success in then and today’s fiercely competitive education system.

Employees were expected to work hard and demonstrate loyalty to the company, so they can be entitled to receive job security and benefits, such as housing subsidies, health or life insurance, the use of recreational facilities, bonuses, and pensions. Wages begin in the minimum rate, but seniority is rewarded, with promotions based on a combination of seniority and ability.


The Mostly Known Japanese Working Culture

On average, employees were said to have worked a 46-hour week in 1987; employees of most large companies worked a five-day week with two Saturdays a month schedule, while those in some small firms worked as much as six days a week; and in January 1989, public agencies began closing two Saturdays a month. Japanese labour unions made reduced working hours an important part of their demands, and many larger companies responded in a positive manner.2,3

In 1986, the average Japanese employee worked 2,097 hours, compared with 1,828 hours in the United States and 1,702 hours in France. By 1995, the average annual hours in Japan had decreased to 1,884 hours and 1,714 hours by 2009.4 The average Japanese worker is said to be entitled to 15 days of paid holidays per year but usually takes only one week.5

Coupled with the decreasing size of the Japanese workforce, the average hours worked in a week has been on the rise at many medium to large-sized companies. At many companies, there is a written-in overtime allowance per month in the contract, which is often the first 20–40 hours of overtime are called “service overtime” and unpaid.

Officially, a typical working week in Japan is largely 40 working hours with additional limits for overtime work. This goes for both full-time and part-time work – an example being paid as a waiter for a restaurant but having to do the clean-up after the restaurant closes without pay.

According to a paper from Doshisha University in Kyoto, many Japanese companies adhere to a mantra called “ho-ren-so”, which is a mnemonic device that combines the first syllables of three verbs: Houkoku (report), renraku (contact), soudan (consult).6 This mantra states that an employee in Japan must always keep their superiors informed about what they are doing. Every decision should go through the chain of command and get the stamp of approval from the boss. Employees should also immediately report any problems to their bosses before trying to take care of anything on their own.

However, it is not all work for Japanese employees, as perceived by those outside of the country. Japanese coworkers often hang out as a group after work. It is socially expected to a certain degree, although not necessarily required, because it can be a helpful way to create strong relationships with the people in the company.

Japan Entering New Work Environments

How can business leaders in Japan adapt to new styles of working cultures? It may be a slow process and may need some time in getting used to, but it can increase productivity and efficiency.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration are backing this shift as a government labour reform panel released a report on March 2017 calling for “flexible work styles” and the promotion of moonlighting which many companies banned.

Hiring freelance workers

These days, more companies are capitalising on the surge in freelance workers for a variety of reasons. One of them is the financial gain; as it is expensive to recruit and maintain a permanent staff, whereas freelancers rarely come over with full-time benefits. According to Lancers Inc., Japan had about 11.22 million freelancers aged between 20 and 69 as of February 2017, which is 17 percent of the nation’s working population. These workers receive direct compensation for the services they perform without the additional costs gained by an in-house employee.7

According to the Freelancers’ Union, in comparison to Japan, they predicted that the majority of the American workforce will be mostly freelance by 2027, and about 50 percent of people are pursuing their careers in freelance writing, coding, designing, etc.8 This can also be a huge transition for Japan as most of their employees are full-time, so if implemented, should be done slowly until the progress seems right for the company.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration are backing this shift as a government labour reform panel released a report on March 2017 calling for “flexible work styles” and the promotion of moonlighting which many companies banned.

Companies in the country are now required to streamline to maintain productivity with limited resources, in which the first step is to evaluate the workers’ contributions based on performance and not on the hours they put in.

Abe, on a report from the Japan Times said that as the population declines, companies have to pursue more productivity by breaking down their tasks and, in some areas, outsourcing their work effectively to become sustainable.9

Hiring freelancers can help in many cases by offering “open innovation”, a new concept of developing ideas using the knowledge and experience provided by outside resources. Not only that, but freelancers are also allowing small and midsize companies a less expensive way to hire talent than adding them to the payroll.


Focus on the millennial age

Hiring millennials allows the business to be up to date and in good hands where technology is a pivotal part of day-to-day.

Another way for businesses to slowly break into a workstyle reform is by acquiring more employees in the millennial age bracket, as they are becoming more integrated in the business sphere. This age group is known to be redefining the expectations of traditional corporate settings by incorporating new and profound ideas, and more companies have transitioned their areas of focus, catering to how millennials function.

This generation grew up during the strongest periods of technological advancement and have access to all the newest technology, while adapting and adopting them quickly. Technology is integral in a millennial’s life, meaning they are more innovative, faster learners, and more up-to-date with most, if not all, new tech advancements and trends. This makes them an asset to the company as it enters this evolving, digital world. Hiring millennials allows the business to be up to date and in good hands where technology is a pivotal part of day-to-day.10 To adapt and attract the best talent of the new generations, business leaders should also modernise their policies with flexible work schedules, whereby employees work 24/7 without having to go to the office.

For Japanese millennials, recently graduated students, who comprise most of the country’s newest workers, a serious and intense workplace is still par for the course. For students who wish to covet white-collar jobs, the recruitment process begins before the start of their senior year, mostly in job fairs, placement tests, and multiple interview rounds.

This process, referred to as “shinsotsu-ikkatsu-saiyō”, which translates to “simultaneous recruitment of new graduates,” is how many Japanese companies recruit new employees. Those not recruited are often referred to as “freeters,” a word that refers to part-time, freelance, or underemployed workers.11


Prioritise work-life balance

Japan is also known for its long working hours, where there is even a phenomenon in the country in which people have died from working too much. This phenomenon is called karoshi, which means “death by overwork.”12

Deloitte reported that a good work-life balance is the most important thing for millennials when accepting a job and companies that are looking to acquire and keep millennial talent must be committed to offering good work-life balance and flexibility.13

Along with this shift, comes an increased preference for personal wellness over high-stress demands. Some employees are advocating for on-site programmes and amenities that can help relieve their everyday job pressures and stress with several opportunities to unwind. This is a way to prevent the employees from occurring burnout syndrome, which is a work-related chain of symptoms that is triggered by a discrepancy between the expectations and ideals of the employee and the actual requirements of their position.14

Some wellness programmes that companies can adapt to avoid burnout and maintain their employees are group meditation and yoga practices, nutritious catering for lunch, relaxing break rooms and communal spaces, quarterly or yearly team-building events or retreats, and staff-wide challenges.

Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Himawari Life Insurance is a company in Tokyo that implemented such programmes in mid-October 2017. Ten of their employees went for a walk in the close forest Satoyama near residential areas in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture. They attached wearable electronic devices, such as wristwatches on their arms to measure data, including the number of steps and heart rate of the employees and were able to check it themselves on their own smartphones.

The company was said to utilise the data to develop insurance products. Besides walking, the company’s health-improvement programme includes other kinds of events using these devices, such as a healthy competition among employees over the number of steps walked and gives subsidies on part of the participation costs for the walking activities.

In cooperation with eight local governments in Japan, the company offers programmes to improve their employees’ health when taking paid leave. For example, they are provided a combination of hot spring baths at a resort and meals with nutritional balance.15


Offer flexible work schedules

The well-known nine-to-five schedule might have been universally accepted in the past, but today’s workers often perceive this schedule as too rigid and confining.

The well-known nine-to-five schedule might have been universally accepted in the past, but today’s workers often perceive this schedule as too rigid and confining. During Japan’s rapid growth spurt in the 1960s and 1970s, workers enjoyed the job security afforded by lifetime employment and seniority-based pay hikes in exchange for their devotion to the company, which meant long working hours.

These flexible hours might include a workweek of 10-hour shifts from Monday to Thursday, with a lengthier weekend starting on Friday or companies can require employees to work onsite during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., then finish the remainder of their assignments remotely. However, Japanese working hours have been gradually decreasing today.

As more employees decide to pursue both a job and family as their career paths grow, there is a greater need for businesses or companies to accommodate to those dual priorities. And in response, many companies now give their employees the choice of flexible hours and, in some cases, even remote work locations.

These trends allow Japan to break into new working cultures that develop their productivity faster with the help of the millennial age and boost their employees’ competence in the global market. In the age of the start-ups and technological advancements, many of the most successful companies stand to promote work-life balance, an open culture, and innovation at all levels of the workplace, which is something Japan has yet to follow.


1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_work_environment 2 https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/japanese-men-working-shorter-hours-survey-2146540.html 3 https://www.economist.com/briefing/2008/01/03/sayonara-salaryman 4 https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=ANHRS 5 https://www.japanintercultural.com/en/news/default.aspx?newsid=203 6 https://www.businessinsider.com/differences-between-japanese-and-american-work-culture-2018-3#american-workplaces-focus-on-the-individual-japanese-workplaces-focus-on-the-group-3 7, 8 https://www.talentlyft.com/en/blog/article/161/7-key-workplace-trends-in-2019 9 https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/05/14/national/can-japan-land-of-lifetime-employment-handle-the-rise-of-freelancers/#.XQn-GrwzbSE 10 https://www.gofortress.com/blog/the-benefits-of-millennials-in-the-workplace/ 11 https://worldpolicy.org/2016/06/09/business-as-usual-japanese-millennials-at-work/ 12, 13 https://instapage.com/blog/modern-workplace-trends 14 https://www.thoracic.org/patients/patient-resources/resources/burnout-syndrome.pdf 15 http://www.hrinasia.com/retention/japan-firms-taking-measures-to-encourage-better-employee-health/

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.