In part due to recent tragic events in the media relating to ‘Karoshi’ - or death from overwork - there is an increased public and political interest in better understanding and managing Japanese labour practices as they relate to overtime work.

Sobering data surrounding this problem was released in a government white paper following a survey conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. It found that approximately a quarter of all companies in Japan had employees that are working more than 80 hours of overtime per month. To put this another way: one in four Monday-to-Friday employees, was found to be working in excess of four hours of overtime per day. As stark as these findings are, only around 20 percent of firms responded, and the feeling is that the reality of this problem is much more profound and concealed.

The reasons for Japan’s well-known excessive overtime are numerous and are almost certainly tied to social, cultural, economic and historic causes. While perhaps once-acceptable and tolerated, there’s an interest by many to examine this practice, and to re-calibrate Japan’s norms and expectations around overtime and overwork.

Employers and employees alike, are well served to understand Japan’s legal obligations and protections as they relate to overtime, overtime limits, compensation for overtime, and obligations around the recording and reporting of overtime hours worked by employees. Employers are well advised to understand the impact of overtime on employee attraction and retention; and both are advised to consider the health and safety implications of prolonged periods of overtime work.

By way of example of both the extent and impact of excessive and prolonged overtime work, in one landmark case in 2014, a restaurant chain was found to be liable for the suicide of a manager, who had worked an average of 190 hours of overtime per month, for seven consecutive months prior to his death. During his final seven months, he’d only had two days off from work! His employer – who was responsible for his ‘karoshi’ death – was ordered to pay 58m JPY in damages to his family.

With media, public and political interest peaked, combined with social and economic forces including low unemployment and skilled worker shortages, there may now be sufficient will and leverage available to make meaningful and lasting changes to Japanese overtime work culture and practices.