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Koichi Hamada emphasises the importance of reforming Japan's work culture after the pandemic

Public Policy / opinion
Koichi Hamada emphasises the importance of reforming Japan's work culture after the pandemic
Japanese office workers

When I was teaching at the University of Tokyo in the 1970s, my daily commute lasted three and a half hours. But, one day, it threatened to last twice as long: with labour strikes having shut down public transportation, my only option was a much longer route using private trains and subways. Rather than spend nearly seven hours traveling to and from campus for a faculty meeting, I decided to work from home that day. To my surprise, the decision was met with censure from the dean of the faculty and disapproval from my colleagues.

Perhaps I should have anticipated that response. Japan’s work culture is not only notoriously rigid, but also highly social. At the kaisha (company), people gather and work together – usually for their entire careers. The question is whether the COVID-19 pandemic was the disruption Japan needed to break unproductive habits and inject new dynamism into working life.

The pandemic has undoubtedly transformed work elsewhere, with remote work and Zoom meetings becoming the new normal. But in a place like the United States, the prevailing working style was already more oriented toward productivity than rigid rules. In fact, part of the reason I assumed that skipping that seven-hour commute would be acceptable was that I had attended an American graduate school.

Years later, when I taught at Yale, a colleague – say, an administrative assistant – could go on vacation without causing any disruption. They would simply make clear preparations and communicate any relevant information before their departure. With today’s technologies, we do not even need to be on the same continent as our colleagues to work productively with them. And, while some US organisations, such as Goldman Sachs and Netflix, are committed to getting workers back to the office as soon as possible, many others are going fully remote (SlackDeloitte) or introducing more flexible hybrid employment structures (GoogleJP Morgan).

If Japanese companies after the pandemic overwhelmingly opt to resume the traditional work routine – with its long hours, strict schedules, exhausting commutes on packed trains, and minimal vacations – both people and the economy will suffer. After all, in Japan, we have a word for “death by overwork”: karoshi. This is not the kind of work culture that nurtures the innovative thinking needed to drive progress in the modern economy.

But centuries-old traditions are not easy to change, and structural reform tends to progress very slowly in Japan. Fortunately, women leaders, particularly at the municipal level, have been offering reason for hope that Japan can make progress toward building a work culture fit for the twenty-first century.

Consider Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, who previously served in several high-level government posts, including defense minister and national security adviser. Having studied at the American University in Cairo and worked as an interpreter and journalist, Koike has been exposed to different working cultures. So, when she was serving in Prime Minister Jun’ichirō Koizumi’s cabinet, Koike urged her colleagues to depart from tradition by embracing “business casual” attire.

Harumi Takahashi, a former governor of the northern island of Hokkaido, also spearheaded important progress. She recognised that, with its long summer days, Hokkaido could benefit from daylight savings time. But the Japanese have been broadly reluctant to adopt that system, so Takahashi offered an alternative, changing the time only for the Hokkaido Government Office.

That women have led the way in implementing such productivity-enhancing reforms might partly reflect the fact that, as female politicians, they are already used to breaking convention. Moreover, they are probably more cognisant of the added challenges facing working women in Japan. In a country where women bear far more responsibility for childcare and elder care than men do, greater flexibility can be the difference between employment and dropping out of the labour market. With Japan’s labour force shrinking rapidly, every increment of support for women’s participation has far-reaching economic implications.

For the sake of both economic productivity and human well-being, Japan must continue to update its approach to work, including by embracing more flexible post-pandemic working schemes, accelerating digitalisation, and implementing the Hokkaido government’s “flex-time” system more broadly, beginning in Tokyo. Such changes might appear small, but they would help to place Japan on a path toward a more productive and dynamic future.

Koichi Hamada, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Yale, was a special adviser to Japan’s prime minister. This content is © Project Syndicate, 2022, and is here with permission.

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Japan has to play a part to counter the growing power of China/Russia. China have announced that they do not support unilateral sanctions on Russia, relations with Russia is rock solid and trade will contnue as normal.

Japan has to be prepared for war, no way out if the US and Russia/China clash.


They have a civil.defense force and no standing army. Have fun. 


Japanese culture seems to have evolved to ensure a very strict conformity.  It almost seems like a slave   society.  There are very subtle but strong societal pressures operating on individuals.

But the author shows that Japanese who travel and work overseas can observe less rigid societies and incorporate that freedom into their life back in Japan.




















I love and worked in Japan for 15 years and there is not a culture of performance (or consequences for lack thereof) that creates the urgency needed to lift results.

Simply put you virtually cannot fire someone who does not want to be fired.

Until the law changes to make it possible to terminate the employment of people who do not produce then the status quo will remain.