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     Jun 2, 2007
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Japan: Get a life
By Scott North

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OSAKA - The student sat in my office and explained her boyfriend's plight. Fresh out of university, he started working for a trading company in April. She said she thought it was customary

for such workers to come home on the last train each night. To me that sounded bad. But it was actually worse: he was often coming back by taxi at 3am or 4am. His boss took the first train in each morning and the last train back each night: an 18-hour day. The night before she came to see me, the boyfriend got only an hour's sleep because he was preparing to accompany the boss on a business trip the next day. I wondered how sharp he could possibly be on only an hour's rest.

Well, I said, at least he's collecting lots of overtime pay. But the student told me that despite working such long hours, the boyfriend said he'd have to wait a couple years to submit requests for overtime pay. That sounded so strange I was afraid I had misunderstood. But no: he was waiting to learn from his senpai (senior person) when it is appropriate to file for overtime pay, and how many hours it is permissible to request.

The premise is that new employees have no right to be paid overtime because they are not yet competent, and the incompetent cannot claim overtime pay because their overwork is due only to their incompetence. The young man was taking his cues from workers two years or so his senior. They were just filing their first overtime claims.

Another attempt to amend the Labor Standards Law to broaden the category of Japanese workers who are not subject to regulations concerning working hours and overtime pay will likely be made after the July election. Nippon Keidanren, the powerful business federation, talks of exempting white-collar workers who make more than 4 million yen (US$32,880) per year. But long work hours and unpaid overtime are already a reality for many Japanese workers regardless of their collar color, employment status, or salary level.

When workers cannot demand what is legally theirs, then the corporate culture, the strategies for organizing the social activity of the workplace, need to be examined. The young man understood that refraining from filing overtime claims is a stage in his corporate socialization. Rather than brainwashing, the culprit is a none-too-subtle regime of institutionalized, generational intimidation. Advancing in step with performance evaluations or merit-based pay, the practices that produce overwork and work stress are intensifying in Japan.

In 1995, Japanese workers or their surviving families filed just over 500 applications for worker compensation due to karoshi (death from overwork), and 76 were recognized. There were 1,757 claims filed last year for death or major depression caused by overwork. Only 560 were approved, including 66 for suicide or attempted suicide, and 355 for circulatory ailments such as stroke and heart disease. Nearly all the recognized claims concerned men (94%). The majority of claims for psychological problems, including suicides, concerned men in their 30s. Recognized claims for psychological distress caused by work increased 61.4% over 2005. Because of revisions in the standards for recognizing these claims, we can expect to see further increases in the number of claims recognized in the future.

Companies cite intense competition as the reason for long hours. To attract investors, companies compete to cut labor costs. They use as few workers as possible, and unscrupulous firms try to keep as many hours as possible off the books. The declining number of full-time, regular positions, especially at the middle-management levels, has increased competition for them among workers. So fewer workers are bearing heavier loads, in greater isolation, and with less cooperation from their co-workers. In lieu of overtime pay, some service-industry workers are given titles and small management stipends, and then forced to work so many hours that their total hourly compensation falls below Japan's minimum wage. This gives rise to the psychological stress reflected in the recent karoshi statistics.

Consider the recent story about manufacturers' representatives sent to large retail outlets to promote the sale of their firms' products. These "helpers" are being dragooned into staying after store hours and doing for free work that has no connection to their employer's products. By agreement between manufacturer and retailer, the helpers are not supposed to do other work, and by law, without a contract or work agreement, the retailer can't give 

Continued 1 2 

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