Working hours in Japan

Makoto is always asking me if she can stay a bit late, just to get something or other done. She knows my philosophy about working late and knows I will always say no! But she has been brought up in a culture where what I might consider to be long working hours, are acceptable. I’ve had similar issues with other staff over the years—when I was recovering from my strokes and working from home I would frequently call up the office at 7pm and tell anyone there to pack their bags and go home! They knew that my philosophy was: if you can’t get your work done within a reasonable time frame, then either you have too much work or you’re not doing your job properly—both of which can be easily dealt with, with a bit of support from me.

Most newcomers to Japan find the working hours incredibly long. Whereas my friends in the UK usually finish work at 5pm and are home to have dinner and spend time with their family, most of my non-teaching (and some teaching!) friends here are usually out of the house for 12 hours a day. My husband works for a British company in Japan but Japanese working hours apply, and he is rarely home before 8:30pm, and we never eat before 9pm. Girlfriends of mine with children live the life of a single mother for five days a week—the working hours in Japan are tough on families.

It’s not always just the working hours, but also the mandatory company get-togethers. It’s not really the done thing in Japan to invite partners to company social events, even for Western companies where it would be perfectly acceptable in our home countries. I can’t understand why more bosses don’t invite partners—surely if you expect your staff to work long hours and cut into private time, wouldn’t you want the opportunity to make the partner feel good about the company and the people within it? When I had a larger staff, with about 20 people, we used to finish work one hour early on a Friday night, and head off to Paddy Foleys. For that one hour until 6pm, all staff had to be there, but after 6pm, they could all go home or partners or friends could come and join us—most of the time people chose the latter and we would always end up having really good fun nights out, that included the people that were important to my staff. For me it wasn’t so much about getting staff’s partners on board, it was more that I respected their private time and just wanted them to feel welcomed if they chose to spend it with their partner’s colleagues.

The foreign community’s networking and social calendar is extremely active in Tokyo—on a weekly basis, I usually have two or three events to attend in the evening. These events can finish at 9 or 10pm, and can be quite tiring after a long day at the office. And then if you have to get up early to go into the office the next day it is easy to see how some people get burned out in Tokyo. For years I’ve had a system whereby if you attend a networking event in the evening, then you don’t need to come in until a certain time the next day. For example, if you go to a networking event until 9pm and you would usually finish work at 6pm, then you wouldn’t need to come in the next day until 1pm instead of 10am. Again, I think it is about respecting people’s private time, and being responsible enough to ensure your staff get enough time to relax.

One factor mostly affecting Japanese employees is the culture of not leaving the office before the boss. I often dealt with this when I had a mostly Japanese staff, who wouldn’t leave until I had, even if they had nothing to do, and they got used to me kicking them out if I wanted to work late! I’m not sure if it’s an urban myth, but everyone in Tokyo knows the story of the Western shacho who said goodbye to all his Japanese staff every night, then hid on the top floor for half an hour until they left, so he could return to the office and finish off his work without knowing that he was keeping them all there. I’m sure there’s more than a bit of truth in that story!

My company has always had working hours of 10am until 6pm (although early birds have chosen a 9am until 5pm schedule), and there is a lot of flexibility. Even if you are running a business in a country where it is acceptable to work long hours, attend lots of social occasions without partners, and spend very little time with family during the week, I think as a boss there are a lot of little things that can be implemented, that make a big difference. And making a difference in the working lives of the people around me is one of the reasons I love running my own company.

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