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Corporate Japan laboring to change culture of overwork

Nikkei poll shows 80% already making efforts

Japanese workers put in notoriously long hours.

TOKYO -- A number of Japanese companies are trying to address long work hours through such steps as creating no-overtime days and encouraging new thinking by management, aiming to adapt to a shrinking labor force.

The Nikkei Inc. poll of business leaders revealed that 76.7% of the 164 respondents are undertaking measures to reduce overtime. The figure rises to 96.5% when including those that are mulling such moves or have already made them.

Reforming work styles is a key part of Abenomics as the government believes lifting labor participation would help reinvigorate the economy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heads a council tasked specifically with addressing such matters as long hours.

Asked what they were doing on this front, 77.6% of respondents said they have designated one day a week when employees cannot stay late and 62.1% said they have ended unpaid overtime.

Asahi Breweries automatically logs when computers start up and shut down in addition to self-reported hours by employees. The Asahi Group Holdings unit hopes to get a better sense of how long people work so that it can address the issue.

Denso as a rule does not let workers stay past 8 p.m. and has been encouraging them to show up earlier instead. Kobe Steel is banning overtime after 7 p.m. in certain departments to boost efficiency.

Meanwhile, 61.2% of respondents said they require advance approval for overtime. At Muji operator Ryohin Keikaku, an administrative staffer visits the floor at 6 p.m. to make sure that no unauthorized employees are still there.

Working to change managerial attitudes was the most popular response. Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance began discussing this year ways to boost productivity with managers in training, stressing that this is an important role of those in leadership positions. The company is a unit of Sompo Holdings.

The prevailing attitude in Japan had been that long hours were a necessity for growth. But in productivity per hour worked, the nation ranks No. 21 in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "The country's ranking has remained largely unchanged since the 1990s at around 20th," a representative of the Japan Productivity Center said. Business leaders are eager to change this in the wake of a high-profile suicide by an employee at advertising agency Dentsu.

"Our group companies abroad are turning a profit even with almost no overtime, and I believe we can replicate this in Japan as well," Nidec CEO Shigenobu Nagamori said in the poll. Nagamori hopes to do away with all overtime by fiscal 2020 by curbing inefficiencies and unreasonable expectations.

The most recent quarterly survey was taken from Nov. 16 to Dec. 2.


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