Feb 17, 2020

Steps toward healthy work-life balance in Japan

Steps toward healthy work-life balance in Japan photo

Japan’s reputation of playing host to a workforce that takes an almost psychotically devoted approach to time spent at work precedes itself. Perhaps it remains true in some cases, particularly in the eyes of the foreigner. This reputation (and sometimes practice) presents a seemingly daunting task when it comes to maintaining a healthy work-life balance in Japan. It doesn’t have to be so hard though. In fact, if anything good can be said to have come out of recent, terrible and high-profile cases of overwork in Japan it might be that the Japanese government, local governments, employers and their staff appear to be more conscious than ever about the need to address Japan’s culture of overwork and to support people in their pursuit of a more healthy work-life balance.

Challenges remain though, and foreigners working in Japan who may have come from countries with a more open mind about work-life balance might need to be pointed in the right direction.

Steps toward a healthy work-life balance in Japan

Set your stall out early doors

Communicating work-life balance needs with the boss

Communicating work-life balance needs: Quiet alternatives

Put your foot down


Know Japanese labor law

So, let's get into it ... 

Set your stall out early doors

I've got an American colleague here in the office in Tokyo (who makes up one half of the foreigners in our department, the other half being me). He's an engineer. He only leaves the office late in the case that he is required to attend to some kind of system failure, or there's a party going down later in the evening and he needs to hang around until it gets started. 

While I'm not privy to his biannual performance evaluations there seems to be little said around the office in complaint about his leaving work promptly. (Not early, just promptly.)

Quite the contrary, in fact. Among the Japanese colleagues that I talk with, our engineer friend is celebrated for his apparently clear and simple work-life-balance policy -- It's five o'clock, time to go home. It's even spoken about in tones of envy.

And there's little standing on ceremony with it. There are no profuse appeals of apology for leaving the rest of us behind to deal with the horrors of the office. After all, he's already done his daily tour of duty.

It's to the point in fact where colleagues know and understand not to even try and bother him with petty requests, or anything that can wait until tomorrow, as the time nears for him to leave. He appears to have marked his territory -- This is the way I roll. Deal with it. (Although in no way has it been done obnoxiously.) 

There are perhaps two questions that likely arise from this aspect of work-life balance in Japan: What exactly is the problem with leaving when you've served your time? And similarly, all those Japanese colleagues that express their admiration about it, why don't they do likewise?

To address question one: There isn't really a problem, contractually and lawfully at least. Socially and culturally though there are still plenty of Japanese workers out there who approach working life like a jr high school student who asks for extra homework. In fact they don't even ask for it, they just create it for themselves (and in this case I'm talking about "work"). There are enough of these people to form a "group," and in Japan one is still largely tempted to fall in line with the way of the "group." Of course, the higher ups need to do their part here in helping staff achieve a better work-life balance by offering assurances that pay structures, favorable performance evaluations, and career progression are not influenced by staying late in the office just as a kind of show of slavish loyalty to the company. 

As for the second question, well, that is addressed in large part by the answer to the first question and the fact that our engineer colleague is foreign and so the full brunt of Japanese workplace culture and norms don't apply.

The ultimate point though for any foreigner coming to work in Japan is for them at some stage -- earlier rather than later, but not too early -- to establish that they are someone who can work effectively and efficiently within their contracted hours, only staying later when the situation really requires it. In this way one can actually have the time in which to fit a healthy work-life balance in Japan.

Communicating work-life balance needs with the boss

I've been pleasantly surprised by how approachable and accommodating my Japanese boss is when it comes to communicating with them any concerns I have about the volume of work on my desk and with which tasks my priorities should directed.

I get a lot of tasks and in great variety. For now the reasons why aren't important.  

The first time I approached my Japanese boss about this (male mid-30s, able to speak English) I did so with some trepidation lest he take me for being too weak. Actually, he was perfectly relaxed about it, helping me to get things into perspective, putting me at ease, and most importantly, helping me to establish a pattern of work and tasks that I could better deal with.

Important points to consider here are that I like to feel I made this approach on the back of having worked my socks off (without complaint) for some time, achieving results in the process. Another point is that I didn't voice my concerns about work-life balance and task volume in the form of a complaint. Rather, I suggested that I might be able to work more effectively if the situation could be fine tuned. And I also made it quietly clear that I was someone in need of just a little help and so I was turning to them thus stroking the ego a little.

Of course, the less smooth aspect of this comes in the form of the Japanese partner at home having to endure evenings of me moaning about work. It was their repeated and ever exasperated orders that I should be having a sit-down with the boss about all of this. They were right, not that the moaning doesn't wind up again from time to time.

Communicating work-life balance needs: Quiet alternatives

Here at my place of work in Japan we use Google Calendar and the application Chatwork as the primary mediums of non-verbal communication within the office. 

Both of these can be used as weapons in the worker's arsenal aimed at achieving a better work-life balance, strangely, by filling them up with tasks.

This is all about letting the people around you know how busy you are using these shared-calendar, group-chat resources. Some of my Japanese colleagues do it, and now so do it.

I tell myself that I'm doing it as a way to keep track of tasks and deadlines. But I'm not. What it really is, is a passive-aggressive appeal to the people around me to stop putting extra work on my plate. And given their penchant for taking a passive-aggressive approach to many things, I'm confident in my assumptions that Japanese colleagues who similarly share their scheduled tasks with others are doing so driven by the same ulterior motive. 

Does it work? The results of this approach to achieving better work-life balance in Japan are not conclusive. Actually, I suspect that all it really does is bring out greater apology on the part of Japanese colleagues who continue to send tasks my way. Still, it makes me feel a little better.

There is a cautionary note with all of this. On those evenings when I've a social occasion to attend (not related to work) I've taken to listing this on the shared calendar (marked simply 予定 - yotei / plan) even though it's taking place after work. Now, it's come to something when I feel I'm having to let people at work know that I can't be called upon after hours on a particular day. (We're not saving lives in our office.) Perhaps I should be taking my own work-life balance advice detailed earlier in this article.

Put your foot down

The world of work can be dog-eat-dog, can't it. Even here in Japan where we have images of a populace as being painfully polite, unable to say boo to a goose.

All bets are off in the Japanese office though, well, to a certain extent, and the foreigner working in Japan would do well to have their guard up.

This is probably the same in offices around the world but here in Japan if the foreigner established themselves as someone who will say, "Yes," to almost anything, then they will likely be taken advantage of, seen as the path of least resistance by colleagues including those who are Japanese. 

In order to maintain a healthy work-life balance in Japan though, at some point colleagues will have to be told, "No." It's almost the shortest of words but in a work situation can be one of the hardest to say for many. This foreigner working in Japan included. 

This is all about the fear of creating a bad impression and a mood of conflict, isn't it. What consequence for saying, "No."?

Actually, and within reason, it could earn respect. This is what I have found to be the case. A senior (by age) Japanese colleague who used to pepper me with tasks until one day I started putting my foot down once said to me over beers that they were impressed with how I had grown into my role at work. 

It depends on the workplace and the kind of work that one does but being able to say, "No," is as much about confidence as it is about owning your own schedule, grasping your priorities, and establishing at least some sense of authority over your work-place destiny.

It may also be an important contributing factor in bettering your work-life balance in Japan.


The image of the Japanese putting in draconian hours at work continues to permeate, even when you're a foreigner working in a Japanese workplace. The image stands to a certain extent but the picture isn't always accurate.

Still, it's the image of the Japanese working long hours and having an incredible devotion to their employer can be exacerbated for the foreigner working in Japan perhaps on accounts of communication boundaries.

Feelings of isolation and distance from these Japanese colleagues can result in them becoming almost dehumanized in the eyes of the foreigner to the extent that one can feel as if you're the only one wrestling with the challenge of trying to find a healthy work-life balance.

Taking the time to socialize with Japanese colleagues then, one might be surprised to find that they too have gripes about work or indeed that they are also taking steps to address / maintain their own work-life balance.

Such interactions and revelations can be comforting. Even liberating. After socializing with and getting to know their Japanese colleagues outside of work the foreigner might acquire ideas on how to achieve a healthy work-life balance as well as come away with the confidence to actually put them into practice, knowing that they are not the only one trying to do so.

Opportunities abound for getting social with work colleagues in Japan. It could be lunch with the person who wants to practice their English (or other language). It could be that company coffers extend to funding monthly socials to encourage team building. It could also be one of the myriad of company "parties" that are regular fixtures on the business calendar in Japan.

Know Japanese labor law

It's obviously difficult for the foreigner working in Japan to become well-versed in Japanese labor law so one should tread carefully here. However, an understanding of the basics together with what one is entitled to in terms of paid leave and other kinds of support can bolster efforts to achieve a good work-life balance in Japan. This is especially the case if the foreigner finds themselves working for an unscrupulous employer attempting to use any ignorance on the part of foreign staff as a way to cut corners and save a bit of money.

Yes, these kinds of employers can be found in Japan (just read through the checkered history of Japan's Technical Intern Training Program or browse the threads of forums focused on teaching English in japan). 

Armed with at least a cursory understanding of Japanese labor law, the expat working in Japan can at least keep a would-be unscrupulous employer on their toes, not that something so trivial as flagrant abuse of the law is likely to stop them. 

Yes, unfortunately even knowing the law is unlikely to be enough to ensure that one’s employer in Japan plays by the rules, so to speak, and it’s even more unlikely that the foreigner working in Japan has the extended knowledge, patience, time, money and motivation to take the appropriate legal action as the case may be. However, having some knowledge of one’s rights according to Japanese labor law should at least be a boost to the confidence when it comes to the pursuit of a healthy work-life balance here in Japan -- you can know you’re doing the right thing.

There have been two recent amendments to Japanese labor law in the last year that the foreigner working in Japan would do well to pay attention to. 

Legislation made into law in FY 2019 came under the banner of, “Act on the Arrangement of Related Acts to Promote Work Style Reform.”  

Under this legislation the Japanese government has undertaken efforts toward a “comprehensive and continuous promotion of work style reform.”  

This includes steps to address the practice in Japan of long work hours which included a new cap on overtime hours (for employees of large firms) of 100 hours a month, or 720 hours a year.

In another step the Japanese government has begun (on paper at least) to demand of employers that they ensure their staff take at least five days of their entitled annual paid leave, nenji yukyu kyuka (年次有給休暇), in Japanese. 

There are some caveats, of course, among them that this only applies to those workers in Japan who are entitled to 10 or more days of paid annual leave (a minimum entitlement for workers meeting a specified, and quite reasonable, level of attendance). 

Five days may not sound like a lot to the foreigner working in Japan but it is something, and a sign that the powers that be are finally beginning to realize, and lend some support toward, the importance of a healthy work-life balance. 

This kind of knowledge should be put to use when trying to carve out a health work-life balance in Japan. 

Those who can handle the Japanese can read an explanation of the 5-day holiday reform in a document produced by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (Prefectural Labour Bureau, Labour Standards Bureau). 

Foreigners working in Japan who have further concerns about Japanese labor law and how it is being applied (or not) in their place of work might want to seek consultation with experts and lawyers at their local city office. Certainly more sizable city offices in Japan tend to provide such consultations (schedule throughout the month / year) in a variety of languages. 

Translations of Japanese law (including labor law) are available on line but the reader should be aware that only the original Japanese version can be considered as official. 

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