Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Tag: japan

Planet Money on “Japan’s Worker Shortage” and working hours

Scenes from Tokyo

NPR’s Planet Money has a piece on efforts in Japan to allow people to work less:

Some companies in Japan are going bankrupt because of the country’s critical labor shortage. Officials point to a declining birthrate — which has led to a shortage of workers — and an infamously demanding workplace culture that is discouraging some people from entering the job market at all. This past April, Japan’s legislative body introduced a novel solution to these two problems: a law requiring workers to work less.

[The Japanese government hopes that] a cap on overtime could alter Japan’s work culture, bring new people — particularly women — into the workplace, and solve the country’s labor shortage.

You can listen to the episode below (if my efforts to embed an audio player worked):

Or you can read the transcript.

As I’ve written before, number of Japanese companies have been experimenting with different kinds of 4-day weeks: some big employers like 7-Eleven and Uniqlo offer workers the option of doing four 10-hour days per week, in an effort to give workers longer stretches of unbroken free time. Japanese e-commerce company Zozo is actually the world’s biggest company running on a 30-hour week.

“Japanese companies are beginning to embrace… the idea of a four-day workweek”

The Japan Times has an article about “Japanese companies warming up — slowly — to four-day workweek:”

Once synonymous with long work hours, Japanese companies are beginning to embrace — or at least consider — the idea of a four-day workweek.

Although the concept is nothing new and the number of companies adopting the system fluctuates, it is increasing over the long term.

As of 2018, according to a labor ministry survey, 6.9 percent of privately held companies with 30 or more full-time employees had introduced the system in some form. A decade ago, the figure was 3.1 percent.

As I’ve noted earlier, Japan has some of the biggest companies in the world that are currently operating on a shortened workweek: Zozo adopted what it calls the “Rokujiro” 30-hour workweek in 2012. This article is more about companies adopting four 10-hour days, but still, it’s another straw in the wind.

Greetings from Seoul, where I’m researching four-day weeks in Asian companies

I’m in Seoul for the next several days, doing some publicity stuff for REST (my dad tells me that the translation is really top-notch), and also doing some interviews and fieldwork for my next book on four-day weeks.

One of the things I’ve noticed in discussions of the four-day week is that most of the discussion centers around companies in Europe, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand (whoever Perpetual Guardian hired to do their PR, they really delivered value for money!). Likewise, the policy discussions mainly cite European trade unions and talking heads.

One of the things I’ve found in my research, though, is that some of the biggest companies shortening their workdays and workweeks are in Japan and Korea. In Japan, I’ve found big tech companies doing 30-hour weeks, little ryokans (traditional inns) operating on a 4-day week schedule, and a big manufacturing company that switches to 4-day weeks during the summer.

Likewise in Korea, there are a whole host of hip tech startups, cosmetics companies, and publishers that have shortened their working hours. (Tech and cosmetics are big industries in Korea, and people still read a lot here.)

Coming over here to see how they do it feels important, for a couple reasons.

First, I really think I’m tracking a global movement that is in its infancy, doesn’t really have a strong collective sense of itself, but in the next few years could become a really serious thing. And because of the size and number of companies, you can’t study this without studying Japan and Korea. The world’s biggest company that does 30-hour weeks is in Japan, and some of the most successful startups working shorter hours are in Korea. Talking about European companies is a good start, but it’s not the end.

Second, for American audiences, when you talk about companies in Sweden and Netherlands, this is what they imagine:

When nations that have powerful unions, strong social welfare, and a words for “cozy evenings by the fire wearing hand-knit socks” opt for working less, it’s both totally unsurprising, and remote. It’s hard for American companies to imagine following the Nordic model in… just about anything. However, when you talk about it being done by companies that are in countries whose languages have words for “working yourself to death,” those same audiences are more likely to sit up and take notice.

Third, while of course there are some serious differences in corporate and national cultures, Japanese and Korean companies are adopting shorter workweeks for pretty much the same reasons that their counterparts in London and Copenhagen are; they do the same things to make them work; and they see the same benefits. So I can make the case that shortening the workweek, for all its variations by nation and industry, follows some underlying rules no matter where you are. (Rules that, needless to say, I’ll lay out in my book!)

Finally, because of geographical and cultural proximity, China is more likely to learn from the Korean and Japanese companies than from companies in the West. There’s already some discussion in China of aiming for a 4-day week by 2030; and if they do, that’ll be a titanic move in the global economy, not to mention a huge change in the lives of a billion-plus people.

So that’s why I’m here. To get this part of the story. Of course, I’m also here for the street food!

Japanese edition of REST

My copies of the Japanese edition of REST arrived today.

The Japanese edition of REST.

It’s always really cool to see the foreign editions, and to imagine the book being read by people I’ll never meet, in places I’ll never visit. It’s not a kind of immortality, nor is it really influence; it’s more like the satisfaction of seeing a child do well in the world, and exercising strengths that you might have helped them develop, but which they wield.

And of course I hope the book does well– more than many places, Japan needs to appreciate the value of rest, and to have corporate policies that encourage deliberate rest!

Cover of Japanese edition of REST

The Japanese edition of REST will be out pretty soon (next Friday, I think), and the publisher sent me the cover and bookband.

REST Japanese edition cover and bookband

I don’t know why bookbands are such a thing in Japan, nor why there’s a cat on mine, but I like it.

“Rest condemns neither hard work nor perfectionism, but rather celebrates both”

Scenes from Tokyo

The Japanese edition of REST will be out in a few weeks, and I’ve started thinking about pieces that I could pitch to magazines and newspapers.

But it turns out that Joji Sakurai beat me to it in the New Statesman: Continue reading

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