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Working the Japanese People to Death

SNA (Tokyo) — Hifumi Okunuki, President of the Tokyo General Union (Tozen), discusses the unwillingness of Japanese policymakers to protect Japanese employees from death by overwork. A report by contributing videographer Sam King.

Hifumi Okunuki: Although this is something already well-known about Japan among foreign audiences, it is a major social problem in Japan that employees are made to work very long hours. Even among major companies there are cases in which workers are being made to work too long. Some of them are scrupulous in paying all the wages, but many non-transparent practices also remain.

The case that recently gained much attention overseas was that of Matsuri Takahashi at Dentsu in 2016. Dentsu is Japan’s largest advertising company. To her friends and the people who knew her, Matsuri Takahashi was a wonder woman—a real winner.  It seemed like nothing could possibly defeat her. But then she entered Dentsu as a full-time employee, and it was only a half a year later she was burdened by extreme levels of overwork. More and more work was piled on her by her bosses. So she had joined the company in April, and on Christmas Day the same year, December 25, she threw herself out the window of her apartment, and thus committed suicide.

It is through cases like that of Matsuri Takahashi, with this system of limitless overtime work, the moment to institute a reform, to write new regulations and new laws on the issue. So then the question was… well… how many overtime hours should be the limit? There were, of course, many opinions on that subject. One major plan came up to set a new guideline of limiting overtime work to 45 hours per month. Then came the response from the business managers. They said that plan was impossible for doing business. They said Japan needed to beat foreign competition. Under such conditions, what business needed is more flexibility about how many work hours there were. It was a matter of survival for Japanese business. So they opposed the plan vociferously. Then the managers said overtime should be capped at 100 hours of overtime work per month. Management’s 100 hours plan was accepted.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has a characteristic of prioritizing economic growth and development. We can see it again in their Olympics plans. Always the focus is on driving more economic growth. But I think there is another way to approach questions of how it is best to do our work. We could vigorously enforce our labor regulations, and even bring overtime work down to zero. We can create better work conditions and still have viable companies. I believe we need to seriously move in that direction.

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