TOKYO — Are the Japanese, long portrayed as among the world's worst workaholics, starting to kick back and relax?
Not exactly. But a new Japanese Labor Ministry survey shows that the nation's average full-time workweek has fallen below 40 hours for the first time in the three decades that the government has kept track.
While some of the reduction can be traced to shifting public policy that has added holidays and standardized the 40-hour week for even small companies, analysts say the country's recession has a lot to do with it.
Employers are slashing overtime work as the economy slows. And workers feel social pressure to underreport working hours to save their hard-pressed employers money.
All told, the new survey showed the average workweek shrinking from 40 hours and 45 minutes in 1996 to 39 hours and 31 minutes in 1997.
That is well below the official U.S. workweek, which has hovered around 43 hours for two decades. But the data are gathered differently in the two countries, and experts voiced skepticism that Americans are working more hours than the Japanese. And there is disagreement over whether the U.S. workweek has expanded significantly or essentially held steady in recent years.
In a 1994 survey by a United Nations affiliate agency, the most recent comprehensive ranking available, Japan was second only to South Korea and just one notch above the United States in the length of its average full-time workweek.
What is certain, however, is that the Japanese "are in a recession and they're trying to reduce working hours. We [in the United States] are in an expansion and there's no public effort to give people more free time," said Juliet B. Schor, a Harvard economics professor and author of the 1992 book, "The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline in Leisure."
Analysts peg part of Japan's shorter workweek to structural change. In the 1980s, Washington put pressure on Japan to stop working such long days, take more holidays and follow global labor standards--part of a rather misguided effort at the time to reduce the U.S. trade deficit.
More recently, changes in Japanese society have institutionalized more time off. Since April, even small Japanese companies have theoretically had to follow the nation's Labor Standards Law, which provides for a 40-hour workweek. The government has also informally pressured companies to cut hours in order to stem the number of cases of karoshi, or death by overwork, seen earlier in the decade.
"The decline appears partly due to bureaucratic guidance and international pressure to shorten the workweek," said Masaru Watanabe, a researcher with the Industrial Labor Research Institute.
Japan in the last 15 years has added Green Day and Ocean Day to its holidays as the nation has become more affluent. Finally, more companies now give Saturdays off in a nation where Sunday was traditionally the only true day of rest.
"The [long-term] trending down is partly a function of wealth," said one foreign labor expert. "What's the use of buying a new set of golf clubs if you don't have time to use them?"
But Japan's economic downturn also looms large in the latest statistics, private analysts say, even if the Japanese government did not factor this into its survey.
"I believe the shorter hours are mainly due to the recession," said Masaki Yoneyama, editor of "Personnel and Labor," a monthly journal.
One glimpse of this can be seen in data on overtime hours. Japanese companies tend to pay their workers a low base wage supplemented by generous overtime pay. Relative to the U.S. system, this feature gives companies enormous flexibility to cut labor costs rapidly during tough times.
That's exactly what seems to be happening now. Monthly overtime hours in the manufacturing sector fell to 12.5 per person in August, 18% below the year-earlier figure, for the ninth consecutive monthly decline.
And in a nation where employees identify strongly with managers and unions sometimes strike only during the lunch hour, Japanese workers face strong pressure in the current downturn not to report all hours actually worked.
Masao Ikawa, 27, an architect, said his company doesn't count overtime until he works more than 10 hours a day, excluding the lunch break. And Eri Kashimi, a 35-year-old computer sales assistant, said her company doesn't recognize the first 15 extra hours worked in a month as overtime.
"Workers must be getting crunched," said Takamasa Nakashima, a researcher with Rengo, the Japanese trade union federation. "I hear many people say they are claiming many fewer hours than they actually work."
In the United States, debate continues to rage over whether workers are feeling pressured to work longer weeks.
One closely watched federal figure--average weekly hours for nonagricultural workers on full-time schedules--has hovered in a narrow range for the last three decades. It amounted to 43.4 hours last year and, since the late 1960s, has never been higher than 43.7 hours nor lower than 42 hours.
But other statistics show that the percentage of American workers putting in the longest weeks--defined as 49 hours or more--has risen. That category climbed from 13% in 1976 to 18.9% last year.
Meanwhile, more women have entered the U.S. labor force over the last couple of decades, many taking full-time jobs.
All told, some analysts say, American families may feel more time-squeezed mainly because of the rise in two-income and single-parent families, along with devices such as pagers and home computers that have blurred the distinction between work hours and time off.
Magnier reported from Tokyo and Silverstein from Los Angeles.