Updated February 12, 2023
Work-Life Balance in Japan: The Ultimate Guide 
Today, work-life balance is more important to people than ever.
Being able to strike a good balance between work and life used to be a luxury. Not having time off work to take care of yourself was seen as something to take pride in.
Nowadays, people are prioritizing their life outside of work more than ever. It’s a lifestyle that’s constantly promoted on social media by the influencers of our generation.
However, in Japan, work-life balance is still not as much of a trend as it is in some other places. It’s a relatively new term here, and the concept’s definition varies a lot throughout the country and across industries.
Today, I’m here to talk about working life in Japan. I’ll explain the general practices that affect work-life balance, like overtime, workplace hierarchy, and working remotely. I'll also talk about how Japan’s culture is affecting work-life balance.
Let’s start by answering a simple question.
Is Working in Japan Hard?
The answer to this question depends on who you’re asking.
I’m not talking about the differences between industries or companies here. I’m talking about the mentality of the person you’re speaking to. For many people (especially those of the older generations), hard work is seen as required. And not something to complain about.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Traditionally, the work culture in Japan is pretty intense.
It’s no wonder that there’s a word in Japanese for working yourself to death. It’s called karoshi, and it’s a cultural phenomenon that has existed for a long time.
However, things are changing. The Japanese Labor Standards Act has improved quite a few things, and abusive overtime practices are strictly prohibited by the law now.
Younger generations are gradually freeing themselves from the shackles of cultural norms, and the increase of international tech companies and modern startups in Japan is building a whole new work culture.
While an average Japanese employee used to work 60 hours weekly in the 90s, the reported work hours nowadays aren’t that different from what you’d see in the United States.
However, the standard work hours aren’t the only criteria that affect whether working in Japan is hard or not.
How Many Hours a Day Do People Work in Japan?
According to the Japanese Labor Standards Law, employers are prohibited from working their employees more than 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week as part of a regular work schedule. Anything more is considered overtime.
Overtime in Japan
Japan’s overtime practices have historically been “less than ideal”... but they’re improving.
Luckily, the labor standards law has created preventative measures to put an end to employee
abuse. This is why when you sign an employment contract in Japan, you’ll most likely also have to sign a document called a “36 agreement.”
However, not everything is done by the book at every company, of course. There certainly are companies that require employees to do regular overtime. Some may even include it in your contract as predetermined overtime, or Minashi Zangyo, which is a legal practice in Japan.
Basically, this term refers to predetermined overtime. As an employee, you get higher pay than usual for a set amount of overtime, but it’s still nowhere as high as the overtime pay set by the law.
Another practice you might come across is called take-out overtime, or Mochikaeri Zangyo, and it’s not legal. Though this practice was more prominent in the past, unfortunately, it’s still around.
Take-out overtime means that employees are required to take work home and continue working at night. As you can imagine, balancing your work and life becomes impossible in such cases, and it’s best to avoid any company that does this.
Article 36 and “Black Companies”
A 36 agreement refers to article 36 of the Labor Standards Act, which limits the overtime and standard work hours of employees in Japan. According to Article 36, the amount of overtime done by an employee can’t exceed 15 hours weekly and 45 hours monthly.
In any case, employers are restricted from working their employees for more than 360 hours annually as overtime. If the employer fails to meet these criteria, they can be sentenced to up to 6 months of jail time or fined up to 300,000 JPY.
Despite all this, “black companies” still exist. As I explained in-depth in my post on black companies in Japan, these are companies that have no regard for employee rights. They overwork and underpay their employees, and you’ll definitely want to avoid them.
Luckily, they are few and far between nowadays. Especially in bigger international companies, workers’ rights are protected much more diligently, and it’s safe to say that you won’t have a problem regarding overtime.
I wrote another post detailing the overtime practices in Japan, where I elaborated on different types of overtime. You may want to check that one out as well if you’re interested.
Nomikais: Mandatory Fun
Working overtime isn’t the only thing that prevents Japanese employees from having a balanced work/personal life. You might be surprised, but mandatory work parties remain a big problem among certain Japanese employees.
Nomikais are a big part of Japanese culture, and the concept was actually invented as a way for employees to blow off some steam after work. As you can guess, a Nomikai is a get-together where people drink and have fun, usually after work.
The words Nomi and Kai mean “drinking” and “get-together,” respectively, but it’s not always as fun as it sounds.
Employees must still talk to superiors in the polite Japanese form, and there are strict rules and politics in place, such as knowing the right place to sit and not pouring your own drink.
It’s more common for older, more traditional Japanese companies to have mandatory Nomikais, which is something you can avoid by not applying for a job at these companies. However, it’s still a fairly common concept even when it’s not mandatory.
The main problem with Nomikais is that even if you don’t have to go, refusing to socialize with your boss and coworkers is still bound to raise some eyebrows. You might even find that those who go to Nomikais frequently have better connections with their superiors and are therefore favored by them.
All in all, Nomikais are a big factor to consider when you’re trying to balance your work and personal life in Japan. It’s not going to get you promoted if you attend them, but you’ll build better relationships with your coworkers, which can help you in the long run.
Another cultural phenomenon that can possibly affect your work-life balance is the strict workplace hierarchy you’ll face.
For Japanese people, hierarchy means everything. This isn’t limited to the workplace, either. The hierarchical structure is so embedded into society that it’s even prominent in schools, sports, and social clubs.
Think of it as similar to the fraternity hierarchy in U.S. colleges – seniority rules, and everyone has to act accordingly.
This concept is so important that you’ll have to address everyone according to their seniority or title. If you don’t know someone’s seniority or position at your company, you’ll have to be quick on your feet and figure out what their position is.
Otherwise, you risk offending the person you’re speaking to.
You can imagine how strict bosses can be in such an environment. If you thought that speaking to your boss was tricky elsewhere, wait until you have to talk to your boss in Japan.
Having such strict boundaries can make saying no to your superior or drawing boundaries almost impossible. The power dynamic just doesn’t allow such conversations to happen naturally.
You might get asked to do overtime when you don’t expect to or face scheduling conflicts with your personal matters.
Luckily, this is slowly changing in the business world of Japan. Especially in the tech world, company structures are adopting a more westernized kind of hierarchy. Therefore, looking for modern startups and foreign tech companies can be an easy way to avoid those traditional company structures.
I wrote about the tricky parts of navigating the Japanese workplace in another post. Check it out if you’re curious.
Remote Work and The Pandemic
Theoretically, working from home and remote work arrangements, in general, allow employees to save time on commuting and take some much-needed time for themselves.
However, in the wrong hands, these practices can also be used to blur the lines between when work starts and when it ends.
Remote work was already trending before the pandemic hit. COVID-19 has only expedited the process, and now, people can pretty much work from anywhere. As I explained in my other posts, nowadays, there are tons of companies that allow work from anywhere in Japan and even anywhere in the world.
However, a company allowing remote work might not necessarily be in your best interest. Some companies use remote work as an opportunity to work their employees for longer hours.
As I explained, take-out overtime is a problem in Japan, and you might be tasked to do more work just because you’re “sitting comfortably at home.”
This mindset also causes employers and supervisors to make assumptions. Since you’re saving time on the commute, you might be asked to stay a bit longer in meetings or finish your work before calling it a day, despite having finished your daily hours.
You can imagine how hard saying “no” is to these requests, especially considering the workplace hierarchies I just explained.
As you’d expect, in foreign companies and modern tech startups, you’re much less likely to come across such problems. Remote working can even be a good way to balance your work and life in this case.
I wrote about the more practical aspects of remote work in Japan extensively in another post, which you can check out to learn more.
Does Japan Have a Four-Day Work Week?
As you can tell so far, Japan has been struggling with the concept of work-life balance for a good while. There are many challenges to consider, as the root cause of the problem is culture, which is a touchy subject.
Luckily, there are now attempts at implementing a 4-day work week system in Japan to resolve this issue.
As recently as June, the Japanese government announced a series of new economic policy guidelines. According to these, the Japanese government suggests companies implement a 4-day work week policy.
Companies like Microsoft have already started working four days a week in Japan. According to the company, it’s going pretty well, too. The company says they’re using less energy while the output of work hasn’t been affected, and the overall productivity has skyrocketed.
With such results, it’s totally possible that a four-day week can become the norm in the near future in Japan.
Final Word: Does Japan Have Good Work-Life Balance?
All in all, balancing your work and life can be tricky if you’re working in Japan, even more so if your company has a traditional Japanese management style.
However, as I explained, things are changing in Japan. With the help of government initiatives, Japan has become a startup country, and these startups usually take more modern approaches to management. I already wrote about this in my post on startups in Japan.
Right now, it’s safe to say that good work-life balance does exist in Japan, especially in the tech world, even if it’s not in every company.
What you can do to find these companies is to check the Japan Dev company list. All the companies there are personally vetted by the Japan Dev team. We care a great deal about finding the best companies with the best conditions, and job listings are updated frequently.
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