Japan: ‘Emergency' Guidance on Overtime Hours Released

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By Toshio Aritake

In response to the “karoshi” (work to death) suicide of a young employee of Dentsu Inc., Japan's top ad agency, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has released guidance intended to toughen restrictions on overtime work.

News reports of the Christmas 2015 suicide of Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old graduate of the prestigous University of Tokyo who joined Dentsu in April 2015, dominated Japanese media headlines after her death was certified by the government's occupational safety and heath commission as the result of excessive overwork. Takahashi worked more than 100 hours of overtime a month, according to news reports.

Not an Isolated Case

Takahashi's was not an isolated case.

According to a report from the HR Research Institute, a human resources research agency, “long work hours are a given for top company employees. It is considered cool. And that is the problem” of Japanese employers.

MHLW data show that in the year ending March 31, 2016, 151 persons died of karoshi or karoshi-induced suicide, and there were 500 cases of employees working more than 100 hours of overtime in a month.

Against this background, the ministry issued what it described as “emergency” guidelines in late December to address the issue of karoshi-related deaths.

Under the new guidance effective April 1, 2017, the ministry requires employers to set in-house guidelines for overtime work and to track employee work hours and provides guidelines for permissible overtime. The ministry is also empowered to publicly disclose the names of employers whose employees die of karoshi and/or work in excess of 80 hours of overtime a month.

Generation Gap

Part of the problem is that many Japanese corporate executives were trained in the tradition of total commitment to work. As framed by a former Dentsu president: “If you have tackled it, don’t relinquish it. Even if you are killed, don’t relinquish it until you achieve your goal.”

Younger Japanese do not blend well into this corporate culture, producing a disjunction between the attitudes and expectations of management and younger workers.

“I doubt whether young Japanese can shoulder the burden of this country's survival in the long run,” Toyoji Yoshimura, a retired senior official of Kamatsu Inc., a top global power machinery maker, told Bloomberg BNA recently. “In my days, working 200 hours of overtime was not uncommon at all.”

Younger Japanese are wary of this idea. An official of a leading Japanese company, for example, told Bloomberg BNA that when a university student visited the company for a job interview, his principle question was the number of overtime work hours employees were expected to work.

For More Information

Additional information is available in Japanese here.

For more information on Japanese HR law and regulation, see the Japan primer.

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