Passengers seen inside a Meguro Line subway train during the rush hours. (Photo: Reuters/Stanislav Kogiku)

Author: Hiroshi Ono, Hitotsubashi University

Working in Japan is full of inflexibilities. Flexible work arrangements, such as remote work and flexible work hours, remain low compared to other OECD countries. Digitalisation has been slow to launch and, even controlling for the state of Japan’s digital infrastructure, flexible work arrangements remain low. The problem is not just because of the poor state of digitalisation, but the ingrained work culture.

The Prime Minister’s Office launched the Work Style Reform Action Plan in 2016, which helped build momentum towards creating a more flexible work culture, promoting work–life balance and improving overall productivity in the workplace. The number of employers offering flexible work practices, such as remote work and flexible work, has risen since its launch. But the core aspects of the inflexible work culture remain.

Inflexibility may be rooted in collectivism. Yamagishi and associates argue that the tolerance for ‘free-riders’ is lower in collectivist societies such as Japan. Mechanisms to monitor and sanction behaviours, like micromanagement, are often present in such societies. If the prevailing norm is to work for fixed hours at the office, working flexible hours or working remotely may be viewed as a deviation from the norm. Flexible work disturbs group harmony and signals an inability to conform. If some workers in a particular division can work flexibly but others cannot, the whole division may be forced to forego the flexible work option.

Work culture in Japan is still input-based. A key reason that Japanese workers continue to work long hours at the office is because it is viewed favourably, as an act of hard work and commitment. Input measures, such as work hours and tenure, …continue reading