One of the biggest stereotypes about Japan is that Japanese people devote their lives to their work and employers. This contains very truthful information since overworking is one of the clearest aspects of life across Japan’s biggest cities. As such, has the government taken any measures to aliviate Japan’s toxic work culture?
We have seen many companies and countries implement 4-day weeks, and each time this happens we read new articles about the mind-blowing benefits (though there are also articles that criticize 4-day weeks).
The general consensus, though, is always the same: a 4-day workweek results in higher productivity and lower costs. It’s always the same tune. Higher productivity, lower costs. Higher productivity, lower costs. Higher productivity, lower costs. And the beautiful broken record keeps on playing.
In Japan, however, such news could really shake the workplace and how things work.
Japan is notorious for its terrible work-life balance, which placed Japanese cities like Tokyo as some of the most overworked in the world.
In summer of 2019, Microsoft Japan conducted an experiment to see the effects a 4-day workweek would have. The rules were simple: employees would work 4 days a week while still getting paid for 5, all while enjoying 3-day weekends. The benefits were so amazing that they were reported in numerous new circles around the globe, and Microsoft Japan announced that they would do the same thing all over again in winter. What experiment found was that a four day work week had resulted in a 40% increase in productivity and lower costs such as those of electricity, which fell 23%.
The results seemed to replicate the results other countries have found, but one of the biggest issues is that a company changing its policies does not truly effect change. That role, usually falls on the governement and their policies.
Attempts by the government to solve this have been futile. Just a few years ago, a campaign called Premium Friday was introduced, and in February 2017 the first Premium Friday was celebrated.
Premium Friday was created by the Japanese government and the Japanese’s Business Association. The main purpose was to encourage consumer spending by allowing people to leave work at 15:00 on a designated Friday each month. Another tentative effect was that ending work early would allow people to relax, thus addressing Japan’s work culture problem.
While the idea of Premium Friday seemed good on paper, the initiative ended up having mixed to negative results because it was not mandatory. This meant that many companies and businesses simply opted not to participate; and those that did decide to participate also saw complaints from workers who mentioned they had to work on Saturday or stay up late another day to compensate for the work they hadn’t been able to finish. As it turned out, leaving work early didn’t meant the companies were actually changing their toxic business practices.
Therefore, two important lessons came out from Premium Friday’s failures: toxic work culture can’t be changed or fixed with soft initiatives, and that unless the Japanese government made things mandatory, change was up to companies.
This is where the recent experiment at Microsoft Japan comes to play in the country. What Microsoft Japan’s results show is that, when a company truly breaks the foundations behind what is considered to be a work culture so embedded into society that it can’t be altered, changes are quickly visible.
The idea in Japan is that changing work culture is simply not possible because of the status quo even though some things are, for a lack of better words, idiotic. For example, one of the reasons people go home so late is that employees who already finished all their tasks are reluctant to go home because they don’t want to be the first person to leave the office. Doing so would make them look bad in the eyes of everyone else in the office, and thus people stay there extra hours until their bosses call it a day.
Another problem in the work culture is the number of pointlessly long meetings many companies have. During their summer experiment, Microsoft made meetings 30 minutes long instead of 60, and the results were highly positive. This is of course very enviable since companies tend to hold multiple long meetings each day, which just makes people workload pile up, meaning they are unable to finish their tasks before the end of the day.
With Microsoft Japan, we could see that all these things could easily be changed; and that people actually welcomed that change instead of opposing it. And while Microsoft Japan has been the first major company in the country to conduct an experiment of this magnitude, other companies have been making major alterations that are starting to have an impact on their work culture.
One of these changes that can be seen in some companies, including important financial institutions, is the abandonment of the staple business suit and tie dress code that has come to define Tokyo and other big Japanese cities. This change was once considered to be impossible, and yet, even the most traditional Japanese companies have shown that allowing people to wear whatever they pleased (as long as it’s not Crocs) can be done without hearing a single whisper voicing a complain about the changes.
It’s safe to assume that a majority of workers in Japan would more than happily welcome changes like the ones Microsoft Japan tested. Just because people are not vocal, it doesn’t mean that they are content with the existing conditions that have resulted in overwork, stress, karoshi (overwork death), and a decline in the quality of one’s personal life.
However, these changes were possible because these particularly companies opted to adopt new policies. Therefore, the bottom line is that change, while absolutely possible, can only occur when corporations do it. If the Japanese government were to clearly make things mandatory, then companies would have to comply without objections.
Something initiatives and campaigns like Premium Friday showed is that, without clear enforcement, it is up to companies to choose how they want their work culture to be. So if companies like Microsoft want to enact change, they will; and if they don’t, they won’t.
Sadly, while some companies are implementing new rules and regulations that are having positive effects on their work culture, things are proven too slow to be considered a domino effect. For that reason, Japan will not be able to see major changes unless the government clearly steps in and dictates clear sets of rules to make sure the work conditions in the country see some overdue improvements.