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Breaking the Myth: Is Japan Still Overworking?

Updated: Jun 17

After World War II, Japan experienced a miraculous post-war recovery, reaching the peak of its economic growth with the country's GDP ranking second in the world. This period, 50 years ago, was marked by the hard work and dedication of salaried employees, often referred to as "Mōretsu Shain" (fierce employees) or "corporate warriors," who were highly valued by companies and society for their contribution to corporate profits. In 1979, during the post-high economic growth period, a report to the European Community (EC) Commission described Japan as "a country of workaholics living in rabbit hutches."*1 This perception was further reinforced in the late 1980s, during the economy bubble, when the catchphrase "Can you fight for 24 hours?" from the energy drink Regain's commercial became popular*2.


Japan not overworking anymore

Now, more than 30 years after the bubble burst, Japan's work environment has undergone significant changes. Particularly in 2002, when "Karoshi" (death from overwork) was included in an English dictionary, increasing criticism of Japan's long work hours culture led to the implementation of major revisions to the Labor Standards Act in 2019 aimed at reducing the current working hours in Japan, as part of the work style reform laws*3. These reforms included regulations on the maximum amount of overtime work and the mandatory acquisition of annual paid leave, with penalties for non-compliance.


However, even nearly five years after the implementation of these laws, common international perceptions of Japan's work culture often include comments about long working hours and salaried employees collapsing at train stations due to overwork. Are the actual working hours in Japan not decreasing, and are they still longer compared to other countries? In this article, we will break the myths about overworking in Japan.


The following graph shows the annual average working hours of full-time workers in the G7 countries (excluding Canada) from 2018 to the present.


Figure 1: Annual Average Working Hours of Full-Time Workers in G7 (Excluding Canada)*4

Figure 1: Annual Average Working Hours of Full-Time Workers in G7 (Excluding Canada)

As of 2018, Japan already had the shortest working hours among these nations, and by 2022, the average working hours had further decreased, making it the only country among the six to have less than 2,000 hours annually. This data contradicts the international image of Japan's work environment.


Next, let's take a look at the public holidays and annual paid leave in Japan, the UK, Germany, France, and Italy. Figure 2 shows shows annual leave and public review and public holidays in Japan compared to Europe.


Figure 2: Weekly Holidays, Public Holidays, and Average Number of Annual Paid Leave Days Taken in Japan, UK, Germany, France and Italy*5

Figure 2: Weekly Holidays, Public Holidays, and Average Number of Annual Paid Leave Days Taken in Japan, UK, Germany, France and Italy

As shown in Figure 2, Japan has many non-weekly holidays but a lower average number of annual paid leave days taken. As a result, the total number of annual holidays in Japan is second lowest among these five countries, after the UK. However, the difference with countries like France and Italy is only about 3-4 days.


From these two sets of data, it is clear that Japan has shorter working hours and, comparatively, a fairer work environment than other G7 nations. Yet, the persistence of the aforementioned image might be attributed to the low rate of annual paid leave taken. This perception of fewer holidays is prevalent among Japanese people and is propagated worldwide through the media.


To break this 'corporate slave' image, it is necessary for workers to be more aware of these facts and recognize that they are working in a comparatively fair environment. The government and corporations need to actively disseminate these statistics. Additionally, redesigning the weekly holidays and annual paid leave could make the work environment even more comfortable for workers. Changing the current image of Japan's work environment is crucial, especially as the country faces a declining birthrate and aging population and needs to attract global talent.


"Japan, a Nation Striving for Fairness*9"


While there are mixed opinions on this vision, it is undoubtedly a goal that Japan, needing to attract global talent, should strive towards. It is hoped that through joint efforts by the government and private sector, an environment where everyone can work happily will be created.


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(Edited by Jelper Club Editorial Team)



 

Source/Notes:

1.「【第11回】昭和54年(1979)」(MyNaviBOOKS):https://book.mynavi.jp/ebooks/detail_summary/id=47322

3. 「70年ぶりの大改革は過労死の歯止めとなるのか」(The Sankei Shimbun):https://www.sankei.com/article/20180629-JVV6IDZHPVP67FNELLDBUZNNYM/

4. ” Average usual weekly hours worked on the main job” (OECD); “Monthly Labour Survey” (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Japan); “American Time Use Survey―2022 Results” (United States Department of Labor); Assuming a year has 52 weeks, calculate the total number of working hours (other than Japan) by multiplying the weekly working hours by 52; For the United States, 2020 data is not included due to missing data from the Department of Labor.

5.「データブック国際労働比較2023」(JILPT):https://www.jil.go.jp/kokunai/statistics/databook/2023/documents/d2023_ch6.pdf

6. The number of 'Sundays' and 'Saturdays' in a year (assuming a two-day weekend system)

7. In Japan, holidays that fall on Saturdays or Sundays are excluded, and substitute holidays are included. In Europe, holidays that fall on Sundays are excluded.

8. "Comprehensive Survey of Working Conditions 2022" (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Japan); "Working time in 2019–2020" (Eurofound); excluding carry-over days; Average annual paid leave days taken in Japan for each year = Average annual paid leave days granted for each year × average acquisition rate (2021). Average annual paid leave days taken in the UK and France for each year = Statutory minimum grant days × average acquisition rate (2021). Average annual paid leave days taken in Germany and Italy for each year = Average grant days agreed in labor agreements × average acquisition rate (2021); Japan: Targets privately-owned corporations with 30 or more regular employees. The average days taken in 2021, according to the 2022 survey, were 10.3 days with an acquisition rate of 58.3%. According to a survey by the private travel company Expedia, the acquisition rates in 2021 for the UK were 84%, Germany 93%, France 83%, Italy 77% (source: Expedia Paid Leave International Comparison Survey (March 2022)). Note that in the United States, annual paid leave is not regulated by federal law. The average number of days granted in the private sector has been 8 days each year from 2010 to 2022 (source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) (September 2022), 2022 Employee Benefits in the United States). The acquisition rate according to the above-mentioned Expedia survey is 80%. 9. 「「働き方改革」の実現に向けて」 (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Japan): https://www.mhlw.go.jp/stf/seisakunitsuite/bunya/0000148322.html


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2 Comments


Christopher Wróbel
Christopher Wróbel
Dec 24, 2023

Where is the source / calculation for Figure 1. From what it seems, the calculation disregards any holidays or real hours spent working. There are huge discrepancies when comparing to the OECD data.


This reads like a opinion piece, especially the "fairness" argument is without any citation or reasoning.

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jelper-service
Dec 24, 2023
Replying to

Hi Christopher,


Thank you for sharing your concerns. We would like to provide some clarification regarding the points you raised.


Firstly, the data shown in Figure 1 pertains exclusively to the total working hours of full-time employees. This contrasts with the dataset you referenced, which encompasses both part-time and part-year workers. This key distinction accounts for the discrepancies observed between your figures and ours.


For our analysis, we utilized OECD data (https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=Ave_HRS) for the U.K., Italy, Germany, and France, focusing on weekly working hours. To estimate annual hours, we multiplied these weekly numbers by 52, adopting a conservative approach. In the case of the U.S., we referred to data from the United States Department of Labor (https://beta.bls.gov/dataQuery/find?st=380&r=20&s=popularity%3AD&q=full+time+working&fq=survey:%5btu%5d&more=0), which provides daily…


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