By Sophia Rosenfeld
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ushered in an ambitious plan to jumpstart Japan’s economy, featuring massive government spending, reflation, and structural reforms. These changes come at a time when Japan’s workforce is shrinking to ever-smaller numbers and innovation is greatly needed to keep up with other developed economies. However, what may be hardest to change is Japan’s work culture, which has traditionally prized loyalty while disdaining risk. This culture is perhaps manifested most famously in the figure of the Japanese salaryman, the Anglophone term for Japan’s overworked professional men who often spend their entire careers working for the same company.
The salaryman lifestyle may be changing, in part due to Abe’s economic reform efforts. In recent years, the Japanese government has loosened regulations surrounding part-time work, and as a result more than a million full-time jobs have been cut. The Abe administration has also strongly encouraged women to play an active role in the workforce, a particularly significant move given Japan’s historically large gender gap in this area. Last but not least, newly proposed laws may curb excessive overtime work, a staple of salaryman culture that has 22 percent of Japan’s workforce working more than 50 hours per week, a rate twice as high as in the United States.
These trends forecast a slow but steady shift in Japan’s work culture, and reflect larger trends in corporate norms worldwide. In the age of the start-up, many of the most successful new companies make a point to promote work-life balance, an open culture, and innovation at all levels of the workplace hierarchy.
Yet cultural change remains sluggish. For the millennials of Japan, the recently graduated students who comprise many of the country’s newest workers, an ultra-intense workplace is still par for the course. For students on track to begin coveted white-collar jobs, the recruitment process begins before the start of their senior year in a roar of job fairs, placement tests, and multiple interview rounds. This process, referred to as shinsotsu-ikkatsu-saiyō, which roughly translates to “simultaneous recruitment of new graduates,” is how many Japanese companies procure new employees. Those not recruited through shinsotsu-ikkatsu-saiyō are often referred to as “freeters,” a word that refers to part-time, freelance, or underemployed workers.
Emi Ohta, a 2016 graduate of Waseda University in Tokyo, describes the difficulty of shinsotsu-ikkatsu-saiyō: “It’s brutal. It seems like a never-ending process where you have to keep submitting applications without knowing if you’ll qualify for the next round. But there’s no time for you to be upset because the deadline for another company is coming up.” Ohta, who successfully landed a full-time media production job, says that her fellow young workers have inherited the mindset that their jobs unilaterally represent them and that “their lives are over if they can’t find employment.”
The consequences of this all-or-nothing attitude can be devastating, with the most extreme cases resulting in death from overwork. The lack of work-life balance also manifests in subtler ways. Most significantly for Japan’s infamously shrinking population, the emphasis on long hours can make it difficult for workers to raise families. In the past, salarymen would go to work while their wives reared children and took care of the household. Citing the falling number of available workers as well as Japan’s significant workplace gender gap, Abe has called for companies to hire and retain women.
However, he has also called for the birthrate, now at 1.4 children per woman, to rise to 1.8. This simultaneous emphasis on family-rearing and professional retention puts potential parents, particularly women, in a bind.
For very recent graduates like Ohta, raising a family is often still in the distant future. Yet family-work balance is certainly on the mind of many young professionals in Japan. “The other day I went out drinking with the people in my team. Out of seven people in their twenties, thirties, and forties, only two were married, and everyone discussed how ‘bad’ that was,” she says.
Acts like the Child Care and Family Leave Law, expanded in 2010, can ostensibly help support new working parents. However, Japanese culture still has a long way to catch up. Despite the option to take paternity leave, the Japanese Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry says that only 2.6 percent of fathers did so in 2011, a statistic that suggests that child-rearing still falls squarely on mothers’ shoulders in most cases.
Wide cultural shifts take a long time. Japan’s population is in a period of flux, and the economy will inevitably respond in kind, with trends predicting increased numbers of “freeters” (including those who purposefully choose part-time over full-time labor), more women returning to the workplace, and increased benefits for new parents. Someday, Japanese millennials will be the ones calling the shots. Who knows what the workplace will look like when that happens?
Sophia Rosenfeld is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Chris 73]