The traditional corporate culture in Japan of punishing hours has persisted since the postwar era of rapid economic expansion when hard work seemed to lead to growth.
But that is no longer a driving force with working conditions dramatically changing after the burst of the economic bubble in the early 1990s and the financial crisis in 2008, both of which led Japanese companies to undertake drastic restructuring such as massive job cuts.
Japan worked the third longest hours in 2015 among the Group of Seven industrialized countries, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But the world’s third largest economy’s work productivity was the worst last year among G-7 nations, according to the Japan Productivity Center.
The aging population in Japan leaves the country at risk of labor shortages, which could add more pressure on future workers.
“Japan is still a country where working long hours is considered a virtue,” said Kazunari Tamaki, a lawyer who specializes in “karoshi” cases, or death from overwork.
“But we need to focus on improving efficiency within fixed hours to boost productivity.”
The suicide of 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi, an employee of advertising giant Dentsu Inc, due to overwork last year sparked criticism of illegally long working hours and a push for a fundamental reform of working conditions.
She had logged 105 hours of monthly overtime work before jumping from a company dormitory. The labor ministry referred the company and an executive to prosecutors in late December over the suicide.
Among the 34 OECD member countries, Japan’s average annual hours actually worked per worker stood at 1,719 hours in 2015, longer than 1,371 hours in Germany, 1,482 hours in France and 1,674 hours in Britain but shorter than 2,113 hours in South Korea.