Toshinobu Kasai: Japan’s much-needed workplace reform and why it’s important at Davos

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toshinobu-kasai-2This year’s World Economic Forum marks my second visit to Davos and a fresh opportunity to reflect upon Japan’s place within the global community.

This year’s conference theme, Responsive and Responsible Leadership, will be an opportune time to learn how the world’s foremost leaders will tackle issues stemming from the challenges posed by the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, meaning the way that digital technologies are transforming the ways we live, work and play. As Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF) wrote “these technologies have only begun to show their full potential; in 2017, we will increasingly see what used to be science fiction become reality.”

This dovetails with a topic that I’ve been reflecting on recently: “hatarakikata kaikaku”, which is a current major business, social and political issue in Japan. “Hatarakikata” translates to “work-style” and “kaikaku” means “reform”. Prime Minister Abe has made this issue a priority by appointing a minister in charge of workplace reform. In September 2016, he officially initiated the Council for the Realization of Work Style Reform, which brought together labor association representatives, and the private and public sector, to discuss meaningful reform. As a vital part of Abenomics’ third arrow of structural reforms, transforming traditional Japanese workplace culture is key to Japan’s future economic prosperity.

Workplace reform addresses an array of social and economic topics, including gender parity in the labor force and rights for non-traditional workers, such as part-time employees. More importantly, Prime Minister Abe touches on the difficulty of managing long hours alongside work-life balance, which has resulted in the hugely pressing problem of “karoshi” in Japan, a term which roughly translates to “death from overwork”. Karoshi is also associated with physical and mental illness. Sadly, this phenomenon has become normalized in Japan, and news relating to karoshi is commonplace.

As it stands, even though Japan Inc.’s working hours are often so long that they are an occupational hazard, productivity in Japan is low relative to countries of comparable development. Japan’s per capita GDP is only ranked 26th worldwide in comparison to its total GDP, ranked third in the world, after the United States and China.

It is thus commendable that Japan’s leaders see it fit to respond to the issues and pressures of the workplace, to improve the well-being of our society while looking to promote a sustainable, higher growth future for Japan. Prime Minister Abe references some of the key aspects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – Artificial Intelligence, big data, and robotics – that will revolutionize how the Japanese work. Such developments and workplace reforms can be the catalysts to spur growth as they boost Japan’s productivity per capita over time, and problems such as karoshi will be a thing of the past.

I look forward to gaining more insights into these issues as I immerse myself in the activities and discussions of Davos.

One thought on “Toshinobu Kasai: Japan’s much-needed workplace reform and why it’s important at Davos

  1. Theresa Gruber-Tapsoba

    Mr Kasai,

    Many thanks for your summary of the changes taking place in Japan’s workplace. The government’s concern over the social issues and how they intersect with productivity is both commendable and interesting. I look forward to learning more through your blogs.

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