Another valiant government effort is under way to stop the Japanese from working so hard. But it is making little progress. While unions in the United States and Europe are pressing for a 35-hour workweek, Japan's workaholics are still not close to universal acceptance of a fiveday week. Nor can they be persuaded to use all their vacation time.
Concerned officials see reduction of working hours as one way of reducing the current trade friction with Japan's major partners by lowering the output of goods in export-oriented businesses.
Ichiro Shioji, president of the Federation of Automobile Workers' Union, has suggested that US tempers in the current "car war" could be soothed if Japanese workers cut out overtime.
The new government of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki has adopted the modest target of eliminating 20 working hours a year, which still leaves most of the labor force toiling slightly more than 40 hours per week.
Two years ago the Labor Ministry found that the average laborer's real working hours (excluding meal and tea breaks) are 40.2 a week, compared with 37. 3 in the US and 36.3 in West Germany. One out of four workers had switched to a five-day work week, and at least 40 percent of the labor force took less than a third of their holidays.
In a leaflet packed with cartoons and catch phrases, the ministry tried to demonstrate the joys of a little less devotion to work. The campaign had little effect.
A new survey has found that only 32 percent of firms with more than 1,000 employess has adopted a five-day week. And disregard of allotted holidays continues. The latest Labor Ministry figures indicate salaried workers use only about 60 percent of their paid leave annually. (In small companies workers spend at least half their holidays on the job.)
The electronics industry, one of the export giants, appears to be leading the way in sacrifice. A union study reports that workers use less than 30 percent of their leave time. (It is a paradox that in the face of a government and union campaign to ease their lot, many workers are happy to leave things as they are.)
The main reasons cited for sacrificing holidays and ignoring the clock at quitting time are the need to maintain "team spirit," considerations of promotion, and a feeling that leaving the job will impose hardships on fellow workers.
Kazuyoshi Koshiro, professor of labor economics at Yakohama University, points out that bright young office workers on track to executive positions are under pressure to earn promotions by camping out behind their desks. Less motivated colleagues are sampling the joys of the beach and ski slopes.
"Most Japanese workers feel their own fate is tied to the company," says Mr. Koshiro. "They think the putting in long hours will help the company succeed, which will help pave the path of their own success."
There is also a strong feeling that it is selfish to be out playing while colleagues are slaving away. When the Labor Ministry began its campaign two years ago, it proposed that major enterprises force their staff to relax by following the European practice of closing down in the summer.
But a ministry survey in July found that only one major company, a rubber manufacturer, was giving its workers a 10-day break. The average was 5.2 days.
The late Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira planned to lead the way toward more relaxation by introducing a limited five-day week for government workers. But political confusion in the last parliament resulted in the scrapping of a bill allowing one Saturday off in four.
Staff-short ministries with nationwide operations (education, postal and telecommunications, health and welfare) bitterly opposed the move, claiming it would lead to poorer service.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) also opposed it, pointing to public criticism of the relatively high pay and retirement benefits government workers already receive.
So, for the moment at least, there is no one to lead the way. Professor Koshiro, however, sees some hope. Young people, particularly women, and more concerned with leading full lives away from their jobs and are less willing to skip vacations or work overtime.
"Shorter working hours really only became an issue in the past couple of years. People haven't got used to the idea yet. But I think you will find Japan falling into line with American and Europe in a decade or so."