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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Tackling Long Work Hours

Mar. 22, 2017

Two Osaka companies are trying to create better working conditions for their employees by making their work efficient and flexible, in a country where long hours continues to be a problem.

According to a survey of labor productivity, Japan ranks 20th out of the 35 OECD countries. Among the Group of 7 industrialized nations, it's dead last.

Inefficiency leads to long hours, and often health problems. It's also believed that the burden placed on working mothers and fathers is a cause of the country's low birthrate.

A company in Osaka that packs and ships merchandise for mail-order firms has made a number of changes to cut down on overtime. After streamlining its operations, by 6 pm each day the doors are locked and all the workers are gone.

Work went through the roof 6 years ago with the internet shopping boom, and long working hours became the norm. Employees started quitting under the strain. Not long after, the president of the company received bad news.

“I got a call from the Labor Standards Inspection Office. They told me that the employees who had quit my company had been working outrageous hours, and that officials wanted to come in and inspect the firm. This was not good, and I realized that something had to be done," says Hisahiro Tatsushiro, president of the company, Kantsu.

So he came up with a plan. First, he reduced the number of company meetings from 10 a month to one. Next, he figured out how to cut down on phone calls from business partners. They interrupted the workflow, so he asked them not to call unless it was an emergency. He switched communications to email, and told staff to check them when they had time. The result was a marked increase in efficiency.

"I told the employees to cut out non-essential tasks," Tatsushiro says. "It’s a manager’s job to create a system in which everyone can do their best.”

Ideas also come from the employees. A board on the wall is covered with their time-saving suggestions. Everyone is invited to contribute -- even the tiniest tips are committed to paper.

The employees generated more than 100 ideas, including rearranging the layout to eliminate unnecessary movements. As a result, overtime hours plunged from 50 per worker per month, on average, to just 10. And last year, the company set a new earnings record.

“The more unnecessary work you get rid of, the more of it you see. There’s so much that needs to be done, and I’m enjoying doing it,” Tatsushiro says.

Another company is trying to improve the work environment by becoming more family-friendly. The driving force behind this effort is company President Hiroko Watanabe.

The idea came 4 years ago. Working mothers were quitting because it was simply too difficult to handle the demands of work and child-rearing. Watanabe, who has a young son, could understand their feelings.

“I'd get a call from the daycare at 4 p.m. saying 'Your son has a fever. Please pick him up.’ I didn't want to use up a half-day of paid leave for that,” says Hiroko Watanabe, president of Fuji Electronics Industry Co., Ltd.

So she struck on a plan. She began allowing workers to leave work for periods of 30 minutes, up to 3-and-a-half hours a day. The time taken off is deducted from their salaries.

The person who uses the system the most is Hidenori Kamii, a father of 4 who takes time off when, for example, his wife is sick and he has to drop his children off at school or pick them up. He says knowing he can always be there for his family helps him do his job.

“I can take care of my family and do my job properly, without giving up on one or the other. This system is a great support for me and my family,” Kamii says.

Today, no one is leaving the company because of childcare demands, and sales are up.

“Everyone here knows that this company won’t force people to quit because of unexpected circumstances, so more people are trying to create new business opportunities and new technologies. The company has really benefited from this system,” Watanabe says.


Professor Akira Kawaguchi, a specialist in achieving work-life balance professor from Doshisha University, joins anchor Kyoko Tashiro in NHK World's Osaka studio.

Tashiro: As we just saw, there seems to be new type of working styles.

Kawaguchi: Right. Beside the two companies that we just saw, there’s also a planning and promotion company in Kyoto that has a system that allows its employees to bring their children into the working place and watch them as they’re working. This is an approach where there are no longer boundaries between work and personal life such as child care and nursing care. This is one example of that. Currently, there are more and more dual income families. And it would be important for men to participate in house work and child care. So it’s important to have a system that both men and women can use easily.

Tashiro: Why don’t we see more companies like them?

Kawaguchi: Working hours in Japan are the second longest among the advanced nations after South Korea. The scope of the work tends to be vague, and employment contracts are also unclear compared with overseas. This means that as soon as person finishes one task, they then have another task -- it’s never ending.

Tashiro: Are there other reasons?

Kawaguchi: Accountability tends to be vague as well, and things tend to be decided by consensus. Because of this, there are many unnecessary meetings.

Tashiro: What could companies do to bring about changes and to reduce work hours?

Kawaguchi: It’s important that employee work scope is clearly defined, and that they delegate with their responsibility. It’s also important that people who use childcare leave and other system can still be promoted.

Tashiro: Then, what should the national government do?

Kawaguchi: There are laws and place to ensure that people use childcare leave and other systems are not disadvantaged. However, many people don’t know about this. It’s important that the national government informs people about the system. Also, because of the low birthrate in Japan the labor population is decreasing. In the future it’s likely that there would be competent with foreign labor coming into Japan. When foreign labor increases, it means it’s more necessary to clarify the work scope and also make meetings more efficient.

Tashiro: I guess the focus is on how to adjust and improve the working styles in keeping with globalization. Thank you very much.