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The 100 hour work week in Japan

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Woman uses phone at office building in Tokyo

A woman uses her mobile phone at an office building in Tokyo July 21, 2015. Two in five Japanese firms plan to boost capital spending this business year, and more than a third of those say it is because of rising demand, a Reuters poll showed, pointing to a pickup in confidence about the economy. Picture taken July 21, 2015. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

At 3 a.m. on Monday morning, Eriko Fujita leaves the IBM offices in Tokyo. She rushes home to take a shower and get a few hours of sleep before she returns to her office at 7 a.m.

This is the hidden side of life at IBM Japan. For a period of eight months, Fujita, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity, averaged 18 to 20 hours of work per day. Her schedule, which included Saturdays and Sundays, was particularly demanding since she interfaced with programmers in different time zones.

“We don't have a 5 o’clock-and-get-out kind of culture,” she says with a shrug. While her schedule depends on the specific project, Fujita, in her late twenties, says her typical workday currently lasts about 15 hours or more. “I don’t really have a choice,” she says.

Fujita's situation is not uncommon in Japan, where overtime work has increased as firms cut workforces. About 22% of Japanese employees work 50 hours or more each week on average, well above 11% in the U.S., and 6% in Spain, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Overtime has become a problem of such severity that it is now associated with a host of physical and mental illnesses. In Japan, death by over work, or karoshi, is a legally recognized cause of death. According to Japan's Health Ministry, over 100 workers died from work-related causes including strokes, heart attacks and suicide in 2013, sparking lawsuits and calls for limits on amounts of overtime work.

In Fujita's case, the long hours became overwhelming. Eventually, she took a three-month leave of absence from IBM.

"I had a mental breakdown," she says. "I was working so hard and not sleeping well. Physically and mentally I got so tired... I was crying for no reason. I didn't know why my tears are coming out."

When asked about overtime policies, a spokesperson for IBM Japan says the firm "take[s] employee concerns seriously, including those around extensive overtime," and encourages employees to raise issues with management or human resources. In addition, IBM Japan says the current business environment requires some overtime work but that it complies with Japanese labor regulations. 

For many workers, assumed overtime and “homework” are considered self-sacrifice, where the performance of the company is put above the individual. This loyalty stems, in part, from the well-established practice of lifetime employment, a mutual agreement in which employers will not to lay off workers even in the face of economic hardship, and workers agree not to quit before reaching retirement age. 

This system has created a strong sense of both security and loyalty, with firms investing in job training to maintain and expand the skills of their workers, and workers putting in extended hours without expectation of overtime pay. But some employees find themselves working even longer hours as firms shift away from the lifetime employment system and hire fewer workers, mostly temporary contractors.

Fujita doesn’t have a lifetime employment agreement, nor does she receive any additional pay for the extra hours she works. She is motivated to work overtime because of her loyalty to colleagues, not wanting to saddle them with the burden of her workload.

This is a common feeling, says Hifumi Okunuki, president of Tokyo General Union. Managers assign unreasonable amounts of work, she says, and "the workers feel they have to protect each other and support each other by tackling the truck loads of work together."

In an attempt to address the issue of overtime, the Japanese government has introduced several measures to curb excessive working hours. One plan requires workers to take at least five days of paid vacation per year. For those workers who are paid overtime, another proposal limits the amount of overtime compensation high-income workers receive. Proponents claim this would allow workers to be paid for performance, rather than the number of hours they work. Yet it is unclear what effect this would have, since the motivation for working overtime is often not monetarily based.

Since she has returned from her three-month sabbatical, Fujita now has a slightly less hectic work schedule. But, the fundamental issue of overtime remains endemic in the Japanese work culture.

"Legal reform is needed, but that is not enough,” says Okunuki. “We need to change corporate culture, so that companies are expected to prohibit overtime, and even lock up the office at the end of the day."

Update: This article was updated to include a response from IBM Japan.