Japan, a country notorious for its overwork culture, made headlines around the world last week when its government proposed a four-day work week.
“Japan proposes four-day working week to improve work-life balance,” reads a headline in the German news service DW. The article was soon upvoted to the front page of Reddit, as many cheered on the idea of a potentially less stressful life.
At home, the announcement was met with predictable delight—but also incredulity.
“I don’t think it will take off in Japan unless the government strongly urges the leading companies to change their policy,” Momo Nakakita, a 23-year-old who works for a consulting company, told VICE World News. “Japanese people tend not to take days off in general, it'd be hard.”
The Japanese government announced its recommendation for a four-day work week as part of its annual economic policy guidelines last Tuesday.
But it was just that, a recommendation. Companies are free to choose whether to adopt the arrangement. Japanese economists are doubtful that it would take root, citing reasons including employers’ concerns about a loss in productivity and employees’ fear of a pay cut.
Takuya Hoshino, an economist at the research company Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute, said social structures must change for the policy to gain traction.
“We have to consider how individuals will receive social security in the future. The fewer hours they work when they’re young, the less money they’ll receive when they retire,” Hoshino told VICE World News.
Hoshino said that many workers’ healthcare plans are dependent on the number of hours they work and less time at work could mean more expensive premiums. And nursery schools favor admitting students whose parents work more, giving employees less incentive to embrace a four-day workweek, he said.
Corporate Japan is notorious for its “buraku,” or extreme, work culture. Death by overwork is such a serious problem that there is a Japanese term—karoshi—for it. In 2019, nearly one out of 10 suicides were related to work, government data shows.
To address the sometimes exploitative work norms, Japanese lawmakers passed a bill in 2018 to amend eight labor laws to improve work-life balance in the country. The measures, effective the next year, include caps on the number of working hours, a minimum of five annual paid days off, and a fine for employers who broke these new rules.
But even if companies adopt a four-day work week, it does not necessarily mean workers get an extra day of rest.
Faced with a declining population and shrinking workforce, the government encourages workers to take on a second job to boost productivity.
Hoshino, the economist, said the idea is that “at a second job, employees could learn new skills, which they could then apply at work.”
The Japanese government has also argued that shorter working hours would give people more time to start families and help reverse Japan’s declining population.
While a three-day weekend remains a distant prospect for most, some Japanese companies have begun changing their work culture, independent of the government’s recommendations.
Recruit, a Japanese human resources company, in April gave employees 15 additional days off. Chu Ka, a spokesperson for Recruit, said the move was aimed at boosting productivity and creativity.
Other companies, such as Microsoft Japan, have experimented with a four-day week. In the summer of 2019, the company gave employees a three-day weekend for five weeks and observed a 40 percent boost in productivity. But the company said it was a short-term “challenge” and did not make it permanent.