Monday, November 10, 2008

A Novelist Looks at the Overwork Problem in Japan

Every so often the Japanese government takes a look at the problem of overwork in Japan, which in some cases can lead to death—known as “karoshi.” They even earnestly examine “work-life balance,” a common topic in the West but one that is relatively knew in Japan. Although Japanese workers are entitled to an average of 17.7 days of paid time off annually, but they generally take much less. Statistics show that in 2006 they took only 8.3 of these vacation days, which adds up to 46 percent of their entitled days off. There is a Child Care and Family Leave Law that lets both women and men take parental leave, but only 0.5 percent of men took advantage of this in 2005. Many of these enacted laws are merely lip service, and end up accomplishing little if any changes in societal behavior.

In a recent article in the Mainichi Daily News that examined overwork in Japan, the paper let renowned author Kaoru Takamura give her views on the topic. Winner of the Naoki Prize for her novel “Marks’ Mountain” and the Mainichi Publishing Culture Award for “Lady Joker,” Takamura is right on the mark with her comments. Takamura is 55 and worked as a company employee before becoming a writer. She states that the solution to the problem is not implementing more systems such as men’s childcare leave, but getting to the root of the problem by examining the basic responsibility structure of organizations. She says, “In an organization where the authority-responsibility structure is unclear, employees are unable to make their own decisions and must constantly refer to their superiors. But because these superiors are also unclear about their own authority, they can’t make responsible decisions. Problems just get shuffled around and everyone ends up working longer hours. Because individual authority and responsibility are left unclear, the criteria for evaluating an employee’s work performance are also unclear. In a situation where it’s unclear and you need to merit praise, it’s impossible for employees to work efficiently. An ‘all for one and one for all’ mentality becomes the focus.”

Coupling this with the typical “nail that always sticks up must be pounded down” philosophy so prevalent in Japanese culture it’s little wonder why change in ideas about overwork are so slow to come.

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