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Japanese Seek Shorter Work Days

As younger workers complain about unpaid overtime, the government tries to cut job time

IN his sales job at a big Japanese bank, Osamu often puts in 100 hours of overtime a month. But when he tries to claim that time, his boss tells him to record only 30 hours.

Such fudging is one reason that Osamu (who prefers not to reveal his full name) doubts whether Japan will ever reduce its working hours to match those in other industrialized nations, as Japanese leaders promise.

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"Simply shortening working hours won't mean much. It would only be superficial," he says. "We would have to take work home anyway to get things done."

Despite his doubts, a nation that has built a world-class economy on the tolerance of its corporate foot-soldiers for unpaid overtime is nonetheless making moves to cut back on work hours - at least on paper.

"It is time to correct the byproducts of a company-centered society to make people feel that their life is affluent," says Gaishi Hiraiwa, chairman of the Federation of Business Organizations.

Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, too, has declared that his administration intends to make Japan "a great place to live," with the goal of offering more leisure time.

The drive to toil less even has a name, jitan, to shorten work hours. Just how much work-time will be slashed at Japanese factories will depend on talks between management and national labor unions that are due to end by early April. The talks are a yearly ritual in Japan that usually focuses on the level of wage hikes. This year, with a stagnant economy, the negotiations are less about wages and more about hours on the job. The results will set a standard for almost all big corporations.

In addition, the government plans to introduce a bill to parliament by the end of March that would allow the labor ministry to "guide" industry on cutting back on employee hours.

Such a step is a late attempt to reach a goal set by the ministry in the 1980s to cut working hours from the present estimate of about 2,200 hours down to 1,800 hours a year, or closer to Western norms. Such statistics, however, are considered unreliable in Japan because much overtime goes unrecorded.

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Scant progress has been made by corporations on reducing work time, mainly because the strong competition within industries precludes any one firm taking the first step and risking a loss of productivity.

The overseas image of Japanese as "worker bees" has led to calls by the United States for Japan to reduce time on the job, on the assumption that "excessive" work hours contribute to Japan's rising trade surplus.

BEYOND this foreign pressure, many women who claim their husbands have died of "overwork" (a phenomenon known as karoshi) have taken legal action against firms, stirring up negative publicity.

In addition, independent-minded young people are demanding more leisure time and are starting to jump from one corporate job to another, once considered taboo in Japan. A government poll last year found that more than 60 percent of Japanese workers want a cut in work hours and 41 percent prefer shorter hours even if their salary declines. And a recent poll by Asahi newspaper revealed that a majority of women aged 30 to 34 consider the workaholic habits of men to be unattractive.

"The problem with Japan is that we don't distinguish between working hours and private hours," Osamu says. A survey of 5,000 companies by the Labor Ministry showed that only 9.6 percent of all workers had two days off a week in 1989.

Complaints about a declining work ethic have become common in corporate boardrooms. "People here just don't want to work anymore," Takeshi Nagano, president of the Japan Federation of Employers' Associations, told Mainichi newspaper last year.

To counter such sentiments, Labor Minister Tetsuo Kondo has tried to argue that shorter work hours would enable Japanese to spend more money on leisure and thus actually stimulate the economy. Less work and more play, he says, "would result in promoting investment in labor-saving technology."

And in a recent article, Sony Corporation chairman Akio Morita said that "shorter working hours, more free time, and more disposable income will stimulate the domestic market."

Some larger companies are taking action unilaterally. Matsushita Electric Industrial Company, Japan's consumer electronics giant, plans to reach 1,800 annual working hours per employee in 1993, down 250 hours from 1989.

And at least 40 percent of firms have introduced "flex-time" working hours, according to survey by the Japan Productivity Center, marking a 5.5-fold increase in three years.

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