Japan proposes four-day week to improve work-life balance

The Japanese government has just published its annual economic policy guidelines. Included are new proposals for companies to allow their employees to work four days a week instead of the usual five.

Japan’s famous and growing number of employees are being encouraged to reduce the time they spend in the office as part of the government’s initiative to improve the country’s work-life balance.

The recently published annual economic policy guidance includes new proposals for companies to allow their employees to work four days a week instead of the usual five.

The coronavirus pandemic has already led to drastic changes in the way Japanese companies – many of which are still very rigid and traditional – run their businesses.

Policymakers are now hoping to convince managers that flexible working hours, telecommuting, increased networking and many other developments will be beneficial if they continue after the health crisis.

The benefits of employment

In its campaign summary, the government says that if the four-day work week is introduced, companies will be able to retain competent and experienced employees who might otherwise have to leave because they have families to support or elderly relatives to care for.

The government said the four-day work week would also encourage more people to pursue additional educational qualifications or even take part-time jobs outside their regular work.

More importantly, officials hope that an extra day off during the week will encourage people to go out and spend money, which will boost the economy.

It is also hoped that young people will have more time to meet, marry and have children, which will help solve the growing problem of a declining birth rate, an increasingly ageing national population and a shrinking population.

“The government is very keen to see this change in thinking take hold in Japanese companies,” Martin Schulz, chief economist at Fujitsu’s global market research division, told DW.

The recent Japanese government has sought some ways to overcome the sluggish domestic economy, but fiscal policy is exhausted and the central bank has limited tools at its disposal.

That makes reforms to the way millions of Japanese live and work the next focus, he said.

“During the pandemic,” Schultz said, “businesses have changed the way they work and are seeing a gradual increase in productivity.” Companies are letting employees work from home or remotely, from satellite offices or at client sites, which can be more convenient and productive for many people.”


Schultz noted that Fujitsu has taken the opportunity to reduce office space at its Tokyo headquarters by 50% as the company moves to remote working.

“In the future,” he says, “some people from my department will be in the office, but it will be rare that we’re all together, and right now that space is mainly used for face-to-face meetings that can’t be done remotely.”

However, the government’s plan also has drawbacks, and Japan has already experienced labor shortages caused by a decline in the number of young people entering the workforce.

Similarly, there is concern that managers are reluctant to abandon some of the attitudes to business that have served Japanese companies so well in recent generations, despite clear evidence that traditional methods are less effective than in the past.

For their part, employees find the idea of a shorter workweek appealing, but worry about the pay cut and are accuse of not giving their full commitment to the company.

Junko Shigeno had just graduated in business administration and languages and had several job offers from big companies, but she chose a smaller IT company far from home because she felt its “philosophy” suited her better.

“I did a lot of research on the companies that offered me a full-time position and spoke to four or five current employees at each company,” she says. When I asked about work-life balance, one of the women surprised me by immediately bursting into tears.”

One of the biggest problems for young people today is unpaid overtime, or “duty overtime”. The company where Shigeo works promises her that she will never work more than 15 hours of overtime a month.

One of the other companies she interviewed told her to expect about 60 hours a month.

Death by overwork

Japanese media often report young employees falling ill or committing suicide because of excessive overtime due to stress. Known as “work overload” or death from overwork, investigations often find that the worker died after working more than 100 hours of overtime over several months.

“It wasn’t for me,” Shigeno said. I look forward to working and learning new skills, but I also want to have time for myself, see my family and friends and pursue my hobbies. That is very important to me, and that is why I chose this company.

For Schultz, the key is increased productivity.

“In the last year, employees have shown that they don’t physically need to stay in the office late five days a week to stay productive,” he says.

“The biggest risk now is that some companies will fall back into the old way of doing things and insist that all employees are in the office every day,” he added. For companies that don’t make that mistake, the result is a win-win situation.”

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