What is it like to be a Japanese salaryman?

To support their family, Japanese salarymen have to fit in the office worker mold. To realize that, you need to catch a metro around 8 o’clock in Tokyo, Osaka, or Nagoya. The corridors will be packed with cheap dark suits and sleepy eyes, young men, or women mechanically walking in silence. The first image that comes to mind is Metropolis by Fritz Lang. In Japan, becoming a salary is still regarded as a prestigious career choice. It means that you are part of the middle class and will luckily enjoy the benefits of having a job for life, a steadily growing income, and a stable career.

Being a salaryman is indeed the symbol of being part of the Japanese culture and of showing involvement in the economic growth of the country. Following the Second-World war, Japanese companies needed devotion from their employees. The country needed to be rebuilt. A considerable number of Japanese men left their families living in the countryside to attend universities and to build a career close to the main economic hubs.

Recruited straight from university, salarymen were offered a stable position to sustain themselves and their family. In return, the companies became the center of work and social life. Twelve hours a day of work and three hours of drinking with their colleagues became the daily routine of the baby-boomers at the expense of health and work-life balance. In Japan, corporate “drinking parties” are called “nomikai” (飲み会)and are an integral part of the day. They allow highly hierarchical white-collar workers to bond with their colleagues, release the stress, and ultimately be even more devoted to the company.

Drawbacks of being a salaryman

Salarymen are famous for their long hours and commuting time. Death from overwork even has a specific word: “Karoshi.” Even though the average salaryman contractual number of hours per year is lower in Japan than in the United-States (1738 vs 1757 respectively), the real problem is linked to overtime. According to a survey conducted by the Government showed that 25% of Japanese corporations expected their white-collar workers to work 80 hours of overtime per month.

In Japan, productivity and innovation are not rewarded. For salarymen, a “job for life” means that their entire life is devoted to the company. Promotion is mostly tied to age and not to performance. The consequences for corporations are that they will be filled with devoted but non-creative employees. The sure way to be sacked is to get outside of the crowd. Individual risk-takers built the United-States industrial empire. In Japan, economic growth was linked to standardization not only of the manufacturing processes but also of the staff and corporate workforce.

The costs of overtime to Japanese society

With a dramatically aging population and a decreasing working population, increasing the number of work hours might appear as a solution to maintaining Japan’s post-war economic leadership. It is not! According to the OECD, Japanese workers sleep on average 90 minutes per 24 hours less than their American counterparts. It might not sound like a big difference. Still, an analysis conducted by Rand Corporation in 2016 concluded that the lack of sleep and consequential losses of productivity costs Japan’s economy $138 billion.

Overtime in Japan is often not paid, and the authorities and tribunals are lax. In 2017, the suicide on Christmas day 2015 of a 24-year-old employee who logged more than 100 hours of overtime per month working for Dentsu Inc., one of the largest global ad agency, was settled by a fine of less than $5,000. Dentsu promised to change and to pay $29 million in overtime wages to its workers.

Is changing Japanese companies’ mindset possible?

Prime minister Shinzo Abe concentrated on labor reforms. Changing Japanese office culture is not an easy task, though. Voted by the parliament in June 2018, a new bill aims at regulating overtime. This new law contains measures to control the number of overtime hours.

According to the Basic Limit Rule, the number of hours of overtime can not exceed 45 hours per month, 360 hours per year. Under exceptional circumstances such as a very busy period, it is somehow allowed to go up to 100 hours per month and 720 hours per year. The penalties for non-compliance with the new overtime rules include a fine of up to 300,000 yen and possible criminal sanctions. Not only will the employer be charged by also the HR manager and other persons responsible. To be noted that specialized employees earning more than $100,000 per year are not concerned by this rule.

The overtime rules took effect in April 2019 for large companies. Small to mid-sized companies must comply beginning in April 2020.

Being a salaryman was once considered a wise career choice to give pride to your parents and build a family. In the 21st century’s Japan, the mindset of Japanese white-collar workers is evolving. Job hoppers are now frequently seen. Nowadays, women are now putting their career first with dramatic consequences on the number of marriage. With a super-aging Japanese society and a dramatically decreasing natality, the corporate culture has to change to maintain Japan’s economic strength.



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