Japanese Government Suggests Companies Offer Four-Day Work Week

suggestion of improving work-life balance shows modern attitude toward family life

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Japan has proposed that businesses let employees opt for a four-day work week. Exhaustion, illness, and even suicide plague the country’s overworked working class. The solution may also fix Japan’s declining birth rate.

Baby infant in japanese hospital
Demographers in Japan note a likely tidal wave of gray in Japan’s future—a huge population of elderly men and women—as the population ages amid lower birth rates. Photo By yamasan0708 / Shutterstock

Japanese family life has changed greatly in structure over the centuries, but the Japanese government has been concerned for many years about the nation’s falling birth rate. In the 1920s, the birth rate for Japanese women was an average of five children, which decreased to about two children in the 1950s and around 1.4 now. A proposal by the Japanese government to aid overstressed workers may help.

A recent set of annual economic policy guidelines published by Japanese officials suggests that companies should allow employees to work four days a week instead of five. This would give them more time to relax, as well as to start families.

In his video series Understanding Japan: A Cultural History, Dr. Mark Ravina, Professor of History at Emory University, said that a changing economy has affected Japan since the 1980s.

Modernizing Japanese Families

During the Meiji Restoration, according to Dr. Ravina, the new government wished to create a national standard for civil law. Completed in the 1890s, it did away with local nuances of law and custom. The samurai attitudes pushed into society, toward family structure, merged with Victorian perceptions of family, “effectively codified the idea that women have inferior rights to men,” he said.

“So, ironically, women actually lost some rights in the late 19th century,” Dr. Ravina said. “In some Tokugawa-era villages, for example, property-holding households voted to elect their village headman; [although] household leads were commonly men, widows with young children could serve as household heads, and in those circumstances women voted.

“But then, in the Meiji era, those women lost the right to vote.”

The first major change to the modern Japanese family structure came after World War II. The country’s postwar constitution—heavily influenced by U.S. progressive politics—had an equal rights clause. It said that family law should be based on individual dignity and sex equality, as should marriages.

However, the government also implemented a koseki—or family registry system—in which all members of a household have the same family name, complicating a woman’s ability to keep her maiden name after marriage. It also failed to allow for joint custody of children in the event of divorce, deferring instead to an old system in which children had to live with one parent or the other, absolutely.

The Birth-Rate Problem

“For years, the Japanese government has been in a state of mild panic over low Japanese fertility,” Dr. Ravina said. “Because Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world, demographers [therefore] see a tidal wave of gray in Japan’s future—a huge population of elderly men and women, and a shrinking working age population, and therefore a shrinking tax base.”

For a long time, due in part to old Meiji-era practices, both the government and businesses in Japan maintained the mindset that women should stay home with children while men should be in the workforce. This crippled women’s abilities to have a career and raise children, simultaneously. However, a shift came in 2005, when the Japanese population began to shrink for the first time since the early postwar years.

“As a result, the government has been talking a new language since 2005,” Dr. Ravina said. “Japanese bureaucrats discovered ‘flex-time,’ they discovered ‘work-life balance,’ and they began talking about the need for government and business to support working men and women, both as parents, in both law and policy.

“This is a sea change from the attitudes that prevailed in Japan for most of the postwar era.”

The four-day work week proposal is just the latest movement in this philosophy.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily