Can the four-day week take off in Japan?

Office workers crossing a busy street in a Japanese city
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Coined in the 1970s, Karoshi is the Japanese term used to describe death from overwork. For a nation with a corporate culture steeped in tradition, and haunted by a history of illness-inducing overcommitment, to introduce a four-day week is akin to a cultural revolution.

Yet, last June, the government proposed as much to improve the nation’s work-life balance, with officials gently nudging – rather than mandating – companies to allow their staff to cut down the traditional five-day working week. Now, government leaders are hoping to capitalise on the wider trends of remote and flexible working to convince bosses these benefits can be extended to a shorter working week.

It could be extremely difficult to implement, though, as it grates against Japan’s corporate traditions and a rigid working culture that prides devotion to the workplace. This conflict could be the reason, for example, why Microsoft – which held a successful four-day week trial in summer 2019 – didn’t follow through with implementing the changes, in the end.

COVID-19, however, has changed the equation. Japanese businesses transformed the way they operated, with many defying conventional wisdom to prove they were still able to function – even when employees were working from home and not subject to the unescaping gaze of management. As traditional working methods and rigid office structures go toe-to-toe with the modern age of hybrid work, the prospect of a four-day week hitting the mainstream could be a watershed moment for Japanese corporate culture.

It’s a small, but essential, step

The Japanese government has recommended a four-day week to boost the productivity of middle-aged office workers, says professor Naohiro Yashiro, vice president and professor at Showa Women’s University. Specifically, a shorter working week could allow these workers to improve their information and communication, and management skills. You can’t gain these skills through on-the-job training, and workers need to dedicate at least two days a week for formal education outside the workplace. The government also hopes to encourage people to continue working while caring for children, says Yashiro, with a shorter working week helping families in which both parents work full-time.

“Finally, reducing the working days in a week would provide a better opportunity for workers with multiple jobs to increase household incomes under a stagnant Japanese economy with no increase in the average wage for decades,” explains Yashiro.

Yashiro believes acquiring an extra free day each week could be a small, but essential, step in granting employees independence from a totalitarian corporate culture. A significant hurdle in implementing a four-day week, though, will be compensating the missing day while maintaining equality between those who take the option and those who don’t.

To maintain a 40-hour week, raising working hours from eight to ten is one solution. Another is scaling back wages pro rata, says Yashiro. If allowed, using paid holidays, too, would benefit the worker, as only half of them are used on average in Japan.

There are also worries that employees’ loyalty may diminish as the extra time provides an opportunity to have multiple jobs and turnover. “Unlike general perception, the Japanese employees in the large firms are not necessarily satisfied because they are entrapped by the employment security and the seniority-based wages,” underlines Yashiro.

“It contrasts with their British counterparts, who could easily change their job if they’re not satisfied with their current position.”

Promoting a healthier work-life balance

During the 1970s, when Karoshi was prevalent, Japanese employees worked more than 2,000 hours per year, while their US counterparts worked just over 1,800. Then, in the late 1980s, people in Japan began to reconsider the values which had previously justified longer working hours, explains Shinichi Takasaki, director of the International Labour Office (ILO) for Japan. Working hours became a major policy issue, and were reduced from 48 to 40 hours per week with the 1987 amendment to the Labour Standards Law. Then, in the 1990s, many employers began to adopt a five-day week.

“At that time, the introduction of the system began under a long-term plan to gradually reduce the number of working hours according to the size of firms because it was clear that it takes time for the concept to be shared widely throughout Japanese society,” says Takasaki. Likewise, today, the four-day week had been considered an option to fight the COVID-19 pandemic for the last two years, but gathering knowledge around its benefits and drawbacks has only just begun.

Unlike in the past, working styles that promote a healthy work-life balance have become more prevalent. In an industry in which it’s challenging to secure staff, the only way is to appeal to those who want diverse and flexible ways of working, Takasaki continues. The most significant driver of the policy is productivity. Ideally, wages should remain the same even with a four-day week, he says. Some large companies may be able to adopt automation and other measures, but it’s unclear to what extent this is feasible.

Although some large companies have started to adopt the four-day work week, the wider business landscape doesn’t understand it enough for it to take off, explains Takasaki. The barriers to adoption, too, are higher in other countries. Although the days when working long hours was considered a sign of diligence are fading, he says, it’s still favourable to work face-to-face. Although things are changing, the cultural forces persist.

When remote working became commonplace during the pandemic, many employees, not just senior leaders, reaffirmed the value of face-to-face communication. Takasaki underlines this may have happened everywhere, not just in Japan, and is something that should be taken into consideration.

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The government is trying to loosen labour regulations in the hope that industry will flourish but, historically, industry doesn’t necessarily do what the government wants, says Will Jasprizza, managing director at Intralink Japan, a British business development consultancy specialising in Asia. “When the government allowed fixed-term contracts in the 1990s, the hope was that it would create more flexibility in the labour market,” he explains. “Instead, companies used the new rules to cut costs further – hiring people on short term contracts and creating two classes of employee.”

Large firms will find it easier to adopt a four-day week than small, regional companies. Companies with a strong international aspect and high-profile CEOs – like Yusaku Maezawa of Zozotown or Hiroshi Mikitani of Rakuten – are more likely to embrace the idea, but there’s no certainty it’ll happen.

Some companies have already experimented with four-day weeks, including rice milling machinery maker Satake, Sompo Himawari Life Insurance and Yahoo Japan, all in 2017. In the case of Satake, however, clients complained, so the company allowed workers to alternate their additional days off. The latter two, however, only offered this perk to those who cared for children or ageing relatives. More recently, in April 2021, systems developer Encourage Technologies embraced it to attract and retain younger staff, Jasprizza adds, while pharma company Shionogi is doing so to give staff time to “learn new skills”.

Zozotown CEO Yusaku Maezawa speaking at the Correspondents' Club of Japan

Zozotown CEO Yusaku Meazawa (pictured) is among a number of business leaders more likely to embrace the four-day week

At smaller companies, though, the owner will have a more traditional view of employment. “He, and it is almost invariably a ‘he’, will feel he “owns” the time of his employees, so he’s hyper-focused on the hours they’re working rather than how productive they are,” explains Jasprizza. For many business owners, the company gives you everything, so you have to repay that with loyalty and hard work – which doesn’t include a three-day weekend.

One managing director, Jasprizza tells IT Pro, starts work 40 minutes before the 9:30am start time. Then “like a factory foreman of old” spends his day watching the shopfloor. He stays until 7:30pm, a full hour after the working day is done, putting subtle pressure on everyone to stay, because to go before him means standing up in front of everyone and saying “excuse me for leaving before you”. It’s anecdotal, but the company is based in central Tokyo, and highly representative of the old-school type of Japanese SMB, he says.

It partially explains Japan’s productivity crisis, with the country ranked 23rd of 36 OECD nations. Jasprizza asks: why would the managing director reduce staff days? He feels he’ll get less from his workers, with this attitude rubbing off on them too. It’s as if management only cares that you're at your desk; there’s no motivation to become more productive – especially if you’re going to be at the office until 7:30pm anyway.

If a four-day week was implemented, Jasprizza thinks it would make people reassess what’s essential to their jobs and what’s done for the sake of it.. He points to the Microsoft trial in Japan which resulted in a massive reduction in time-wasting internal meetings.

“The key point is Japanese work culture needs to be improved, but workers and company bosses don’t need to sell their souls in the process – they can strike a balance of being faithful to their traditions, histories and long-term strategies while adapting to the modern environment – including digitisation and remote working,” says Jasprizza.

Solving Japan’s productivity crisis

Japan’s companies certainly have a productivity problem, agrees Parissa Haghirian, professor of International Management at Sophia University in Tokyo. Traditionally, roles aren’t clearly defined nor are they performed by one employee. In Japan, employees are first hired by the company, then transferred to the departments at which they’re needed.

“There’s no work division in Japanese companies like in Western firms; in theory everyone can do every job,” says Haghirian. “This also means the Japanese constantly learn new processes in new jobs, many managers are transferred to new departments every two years, and this learning process is supported by older colleagues, and by performing tasks together.”

Many of these processes aren’t documented, too, so there’s a constant interaction between employees and team members, and, in Japan, there can be up to 200 people in one big office room. Learning is experience-based and done on the job, and everybody is involved in every process, she explains. This very personal and interactive working style is costly and difficult to digitise, but it exists because many employees in Japan stay in one firm for decades. During the pandemic, this proved problematic. It’s also the reason why many companies switched back to office-based work as soon as they could.

Haghirian believes the four-day work week will help companies be more productive, as it’ll motivate them into delegating and defining tasks and roles, and giving employees more independence. Remote work can also save costs as office space and commutes in places like Tokyo are expensive. Lastly, it can also help the work-life balance of employees, given many commute three hours per day.

Japanese corporate culture has made monumental strides since the 1970s, but Haghirian concedes it’ll be easier for some companies than others to make the next step, for better or worse. Larger organisations with a high degree of delegation, like law firms or media companies, will introduce a four-day week for the benefits. So, too, will younger companies or those embedded in technology. It’ll be more difficult, however, for smaller businesses and those steeped in tradition to help bring the four-day week into the mainstream.

Zach Marzouk

Zach Marzouk is a former ITPro, CloudPro, and ChannelPro staff writer, covering topics like security, privacy, worker rights, and startups, primarily in the Asia Pacific and the US regions. Zach joined ITPro in 2017 where he was introduced to the world of B2B technology as a junior staff writer, before he returned to Argentina in 2018, working in communications and as a copywriter. In 2021, he made his way back to ITPro as a staff writer during the pandemic, before joining the world of freelance in 2022.