SPEAKING FREELY Japan's brutal work culture takes a toll
By Heenali Patel
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The system is debilitating an entire nation; when will the Japanese take action?
The end of last year saw a spotlight turned on women's working rights in Japan. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "Womenomics" plan may yet bear some fruit, reports in the media suggest that the government has a great deal to answer for concerning workers rights in Japan as a whole.
The Japanese were shown in a recent survey by Expedia as having the highest rate of job dissatisfaction out of 24 countries, including Brazil, India and Thailand, for the sixth year running. Meanwhile, Abe is calling for a loosening of the country's strict
migrant worker controls as a part of his economic recovery program, yet thousands of migrant workers in Japan continue to be abused and unprotected by law. The biggest and most obvious questions remain.
Who benefits from a system that is clearly failing the majority of the Japanese population? And how can a country hope to treat its foreign workers fairly when its own citizens feel held back by a scanty set of working rights?
According to statistics compiled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Japan has a relatively short working week in comparison with other Asian countries. The official figures however, are misleading. They do not take into account the high proportion of people considered "non-regular workers" in Japan - employees who either work part-time as dispatchers or have a fixed-term contract.
One need not look far to get a sense of how these statistics are not a reflection of real life. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, last year 38.2% of Japanese workers were employed as non-regular staff, representing the highest record to date.
Almost half of all non-regular workers chose their current "work-style" due to lack of opportunity to be a regular employee. As a demographic that receives low wages, no health or pension benefits and no paid holidays, the non-regular workforce represents a worrying growth of instability that remains ignored by government policy.
As for regular employees, while most are entitled to 18 days of annual holiday, only 39% of these days are used on average. 17% of Japanese workers do not take any holidays at all, the highest proportion out of all countries surveyed by Expedia.
Despite the regulations set out by the Labor Standards Law, peer pressure in the workplace often leads to employees working uncharted overtime hours "voluntarily", regardless of whether they have any work left to do. All these factors have left in their wake a huge work-life imbalance.
A survey carried out by Spa magazine last year reported that 72.3% of 600 men aged 35-45 surveyed were single, and over a third of them had not had sex in three years, often citing work fatigue as their main affliction. More worryingly, work-related anxiety affects an estimated 1 million people in Japan suffering from the effects of hikikomori, or withdrawal.
This phenomenon, rooted in an individual's fear of social interaction, is often the result of stigmatization and rejection by a high-pressure work culture. As if this were not evidence enough of a failing system, stress-related suicide rates continue to be at a worldwide high for the 16th year running. Essentially, stress is five times more lethal than traffic accidents in Japan, and one of the leading causes of death in men aged 20-44.
The debate about work culture in Japan has been raging for over 30 years. The need to address its debilitating effects, however, has never been greater. Last year saw the biggest decline in population on record. Predictions state that if current trends persist, Japan will lose a third of its population in 50 years, with almost half of its remaining citizens being elderly dependents.
Whilst the Japanese government plans to the raise sales tax in April as a means of securing funds for rising social welfare costs, it fails to recognize that as long as the system of employment remains unchanged, the problem of a declining and aging population will persist.
Work culture in Japan has had a profound impact on the population because it treats the family as an inconvenience. Despite government legislation, paternity and maternity harassment in the workplace are rife, with 1 in 20 men being denied their paternal rights altogether. Whilst over 30% of men express a wish to take childcare leave, the latest recorded figure of those who do so remains below 3%.
One fifth of young fathers work 60-hour weeks, giving little opportunity to spend time with family. Furthermore, the shortage of day care centers in Japan presents a real problem for working couples. In 2012, approximately 55,000 children in 70 municipalities were still waiting to be placed in authorized day care centers, often giving women little choice but to undertake benefit-less non-regular work. Considering the figures, it seems hardly surprising that young Japanese couples are reluctant to start their own families.
On the face of it, Abe's vows to build more day care centers and facilitate female entry into leadership roles may seem like a substantial step forward. Yet the Japanese government has also worked against family welfare support by disapproving of policies implemented by previous governments.
As executive president of Tokyo General Union, Hifumi Okunuki explains: "The previous [Democratic Party of Japan] government gave grants to families with children, made high school free and otherwise reduced the economic burden of families in order to push up the birth rate. The current government, however, dismissed these policies as 'throwing money away' and are trying to return to the idea that children are only the responsibility of families not the government."
As demonstrated by his recent speech at the World Economic Forum, Abe's methods for revitalizing Japan focus on strong economic policies, not social ones. One cannot help but wonder whether his thoughts on sustainable, responsible business match up with his plans to cut corporate tax and relocate "old industry" workers into new industries.
One of the few concrete strategies supported by the government to tackle work-life balance in Japan is the accreditation of companies that meet certain standards set out by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Known as the "Kurumin mark", the nine-year old scheme recently certified Akebono Brake Industry for encouraging childcare leave, enhancing nursing-care services and holding family day visits. While such an award has had positive grassroots effects, it is not nearly widespread enough to make a noticeable difference.
What Japan needs now more than ever is a strategy for happiness. Businesses must be held accountable for the way they treat their workers, because ultimately, employee abuse abuses the future of the country. Just as importantly, workers need to be made more aware of their rights.
A survey by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation last month revealed that as few as 69% of men know of the Child Care and Family Care Leave Law, with only 13% of workers consulting labor unions or legal personnel for advice. How do individuals demand better treatment if they are not equipped with knowledge about their legal rights? Ironically, it seems that most people are too busy working to examine the system that dictates the clockwork of their lives.
Heenali Patel teaches English in Kyoto, Japan.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.