Japan’s Toxic Overtime Culture Shows Why Technology Can’t Fix Us

Japan’s Toxic Overtime Culture Shows Why Technology Can’t Fix Us

Tim Romero 28/06/2018 4

We were told that technology would fix it. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that the work week would need to be reduced to 15 hours in response to improved productivity from automation. It hasn’t worked out that way. Things certainly have gotten better. Economies have grown, standards of living have increased, workplaces have become safer, but we are working more than ever.

It seems that when we ourselves are the problem, technology won’t solve it.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Japan’s toxic overtime culture.

Traditional companies demand overtime as a display of dedication, and much of it goes unreported and uncompensated. Death by overwork is so frequent that not only is there a specific word for it (karōshi), but legislation addresses it, and insurance policies offer special riders for it. There were 107 deaths designated as karōshi In fiscal 2016, but most experts agree that most cases go unreported and the true number is far higher.

It’s only natural to want to use technology to help. Perhaps that’s why Blue Innovation’s CEO, Takayuki Kumada, was surprised by the negative reaction to their new T-Frend.

The T-Frend drone is designed to reduce overtime by flying around the office after hours, playing loud music and taking pictures of any staff who are still working and reporting them to management. When I spoke to him recently, his frustration over the global attention this relatively minor project was receiving was plain.

After all, Blue Innovation has developed far more advanced and economically important drones. They have machines capable of navigating in the dark and without GPS or radio signals and have deployed drone systems for inspecting sewers, tunnels, and high-voltage power lines. Why was this the project that drew the world’s attention?

Sure, it’s easy to poke fun at the T-Frend, and hundreds of articles have already held the project up, made a few jokes, and moved on. However, there is something more important here.

This strange little drone has a lot to tell us about Japan and about ourselves.

How Our Technology Tricks Us

Technology changes society, but it rarely moves us in a truly new direction. Usually, technology simply amplifies who we are.

It doesn’t necessarily make society better, but it makes it more efficient. Technology enables us to make both good decisions and stupid mistakes much faster than we can by ourselves, and more significantly, when we automate these decisions, we remove much of our own accountability.

This combination of efficiency and lack of accountability means we often use technology to paper over a problem we know to be important and unjust, but for which there is no clear solution. We see this in America in the use of computers in bail hearings and criminal sentencing. The algorithms are no less biased than human judges, but the technology gives the process the illusion of objectivity.

This same dynamic is at work with the T-Frend.

The Japanese media frequently attribute excessive overtime to a business culture that rewards loyalty and hard work. Business cultures in all countries, however, reward loyalty and hard work, and karōshi is a uniquely Japanese problem.

The seeds of karōshi sprout from a bit deeper within Japanese culture; from the idea of honne and tatemae. Crudely translated, tatemae is what you say because you are expected to say it, and honne is what you really mean. The concepts are universal, but the Japanese twist is that you are never expected to say honne, what you really mean. Those around you are expected to intuit it, not from your words, which are simply tatemae, but from other, undefined, subtle clues.

And here things begin to go wrong.

Knowing when you can ignore someone’s words and being able to divine their true intention can work with family members or close friends, but it doesn’t scale well to corporate hierarchies.

The real problem is that even when Japanese staff do not want to work overtime, and management does not want them working overtime, there is no way to communicate that information that does not sound like tatemae. Employees are left to guess whether it is really OK to go home as scheduled, or if it’s all just tatemae, and going home will get them labeled as a shirker.

But it gets worse.

The managers themselves can’t be sure if their firm really wants them to reduce overtime or if the overtime reduction initiatives are just tatemae; something that the company should be saying, and that they should be able to intuit that the true meaning is the opposite.

Japan’s Only Path Forward

It’s an intractable problem, and the idea of solving it with technology is appealing.

But of course, technology can’t solve it. The national debate over how to best reduce overtime will continue, as will the silent deliberation inside the minds of millions of Japanese wondering whether their company’s overtime reduction programs are tatemae or honne.

The sad truth, however, is that this debate itself is tatemae.

Companies that truly wish to control overtime have little trouble doing so. All over the world, there are firms who realize that, while overtime is occasionally needed, managers who consistently require heavy overtime are clearly poor at planning and resource management. They then provide these managers with additional training or relieve them of responsibilities.

Many Japanese startups operate this way, and they completely avoid the toxic overtime culture. In most large firms, however, visible effort and loyalty remain the key drivers for promotion. In defiance of both law and tatemae,Japan Inc has a very high opinion of both employees who put in excessive hours and the managers who force them to do so.

In one of the most recent high-profile karoshi cases, a manager at Japanese advertising colossus Dentsu literally worked one of his subordinates to death by requiring over 100 hours of overtime per month. After pleading guilty in the brief criminal trial, Dentsu was fined ¥500,000 ($4,400), the CEO made a public apology, and everyone got back to work.

That’s the honne, and on the societal level, everyone understands it.

In fact, last year the Japanese government and business associations announced the Premium Friday program in which on the last Friday of the month, the work day would end at 3:00 PM and the employees could spend the afternoon eating, shopping or otherwise enjoying themselves. Premium Friday was presented as a way to simultaneously boost the economy, cut back on overtime and provide a better work-life balance for employees.

A Nikkei survey showed that 37% of large Japanese firms were participating in the program, but direct surveys of employees showed participation to be about 3%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most companies that claimed to be part of the program did so in ways that made it very difficult for employees to actually participate.

Innovations like Premium Friday, the T-Frend and frankly most overtime compliance programs represent a particularly callous form of tatemae where corporate executives can talk about reducing the stress on their employees while actually enacting policies that significantly increase that stress.

To be fair, many Japanese understand and are frustrated by this situation. Takeyuki himself was quick to point out that technology isn’t the answer.

The T-Frend isn’t intended to be a complete solution to the overtime problem, but it can be a useful part of the solution. It can encourage a more honest conversation between employees and management about overtime policies.

So if technology isn’t the solution, what is?

The answer lies not in Japan’s startup technology, but in Japan’s startup culture. Most Japanese startups, including Blue Innovation, are creating cultures that promote work-life balance, and they don’t promote managers who require excessive overtime. Takeyuki explained that his company’s policies to supported flextime and remote work were just as important as technology.

Perhaps the clearest explanation of the shift in business culture caused by startups comes from Masanori Hashimoto, CEO and founder of Nulab, who explained

Traditional Japanese companies are run by kings, by supreme authorities. Most startups are founded by teams, and the from the beginning the CEO must consider the opinions of the co-founders. As the startup grows, this naturally leads to an open corporate culture where it’s OK, and even encouraged, for staff express their views freely and honestly.

Japan needs fewer kings and more teams.

As Japanese enterprises are interacting more frequently with startups, they are discovering that this style of management is more productive and profitable. More important, new graduates are increasingly rejecting the enterprise lifestyle and are opting to work for themselves or for startups.

In the end, Japan’s toxic overtime culture will be eliminated not due to lifestyle concerns, but because it has finally started to cost these enterprises money and talent.

Thanks for reading. This is a based on an article I originally published in Forbes. If you want to know more about me or innovation in Asia, particularly Japan, check out the Disrupting Japan podcast.

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  • Kayla Curtis

    New ventures that are relatively successful are merely copies or improvements on existing formats with tweaks that happen to be a bit popular.

  • Michael Morrison

    Fairly or not, Japanese companies do not have the most innovative of reputations.

  • Steve Fullerton

    It will take time to develop a strong startup culture.

  • Harry Thompson

    I could be wrong but I have noticed that the majority of startups in the world work on issues that are intrinsically targeted towards the Tech community. Some of their ideas do not resonate globally because they are too complicated.

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Tim Romero

Tech Expert

Tim Romero is the Head of Google for Startups Japan. He is a Tokyo-based entrepreneur, podcaster, author and teacher who has started four companies and led Japan market entry for others since coming to Japan more than 25 years ago. Tim hosts the Disrupting Japan podcast, teaches corporate innovation and entrepreneurship at the NYU Shinagawa campus and is CTO of TEPCO's Business Innovation Task Force. Tim is deeply involved in Japan's startup community as an investor, founder and mentor. 

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