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Turning off the lights is no fix for overworked Japan

Asia-Pacific companies

Turning off the lights is no fix for overworked Japan

Stressful overtime is endemic, but workers show little appetite to fight for change

The headquarters of Japan's top advertising agency Dentsu, raided by the authorities last week as part of a probe into overtime © AFP

Anyone trying to gauge the mood of the Japanese workplace should look at demand for desk lamps. Angle-poise sales are likely to reveal the extent of the nation’s discomfort with the phenomenon of karoshi, or “death by overwork”, with personal lamps substituting after hours for main lights turned off in offices to encourage people to go home.

In recent weeks, concerns over employee health have been renewed by a long-overdue government white paper on the problem, and a series of raids on the offices of Dentsu, the country’s largest advertising agency. 

Last week, the Tokyo labour bureau barged its way into Dentsu’s headquarters to see how deep the problem of punishingly long overtime and karoshi goes. Then, on Tuesday, the authorities broadened their investigation to three of Dentsu’s subsidiaries around Japan.

Behind the Dentsu raids is the death last December of Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old graduate recruit who took her own life after toiling for less than a year at Dentsu and logging, towards the end, more than 105 hours of overtime a month.

With government research finding that one-fifth of Japanese companies admit their staff work dangerously long hours, the tragedy has resonated with unusual vehemence. Japanese media have also republished a note on employee duties, handwritten by the then president of Dentsu in 1951: “Once you take on a task, never let it go, even if you are killed.” It has prompted commentators to wonder if the instructions were ever rescinded.

Dentsu has now begun the automatic switching off of office lights to encourage staff to go home, at 10pm every day — a time when many employees still have hours left to work and feel under pressure to do so. However, the lights-off trick has been tried in other Japanese companies and government ministries — and, unless there are penalties for those who remain in the office (as some try with desk lamps), the ploy does not work.

None of these working practices is unique to Dentsu — and plenty of blue-chip Japanese companies may now be fretting that they could be next under scrutiny. But even if companies do enforce the lights-off rule, it is a superficial fix for a deeply ingrained problem. Companies know this, and many may be hoping that — as in the past — the issue will disappear in a fog of cultural explanations.

Corporate Japan is still dependent on the often preposterous overtime expectations placed on staff — and the near certainty that they will be met. Any serious or prolonged scrutiny of karoshi is therefore unnerving for employers — and helps explain why some have been unrepentant since the word itself was coined decades ago.

However, their failure to innovate solutions in that time can make them seem cruel, unimaginative and almost willing to write off employees’ deaths as a cost of business. 

Even the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, despite the recent office raids, can be accused of being halfhearted. But too much public focus on overwork risks highlighting the fact that, for all its promise, Abenomics has not significantly raised wages or delivered any great reward for all that life-threatening work.

A desire to wish away the problem seems palpable. In 2013, the government investigated 5,111 companies and later reported that 44 per cent of them were effectively forcing employees to work overtime illegally. In 2015, the labour minister himself called for a list of the abusers to be published. To date though, just one has been named.

Can there be any hope that the current karoshi furore will prompt change? A lot of companies will no doubt introduce lights-off policies. And many employees may counter them through the mass purchase of desk lamps. Some may even consider candles if the power to their desk lamps is cut off.

But this pantomime only partly disguises an inescapable reality: Japanese companies are placing demands for crazy hours on a workforce that, if not exactly willing, shows very little appetite to fight for an alternative. A Rakuten survey of university students who graduated in March 2016 found that Dentsu was solidly top of their list of the most attractive companies to join, despite its reputation.

The sad truth is that for every Matsuri Takahashi who dies of overwork in the service of a Japanese company, there are plenty desperate to take her place.

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