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October 22, 2009


Aiming at Best Individual Work-Life Balance for Everyone

college_takenobusan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Mieko Takenobu, Editor of Asahi Shimbun

First I would like to talk about why work-life balance has been discussed often lately. In Japan, many people are work-centered, striving for "work-work balance," because in this society, it is very difficult to maintain a balance between work and life.

For instance, there is a polarization in the number of working hours. Some people work very long hours while others work few hours. According to the Labour Force Survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications every month, an exploding number of people are working long hours of more than 45 hours per week while many others are working less hours of below 35 hours per week. The main reason for this is that the companies are reducing the number of full-time workers and substituting the loss with more part-time workers to pare labor costs. Since the work load is not necessarily decreasing, naturally the work burden per full-time worker substantially increases, forcing full-time workers to work long hours. This doesn't mean that part-timers have better working conditions. These part-timers generally have a short employment contract and very low hourly pay. Those who are called "working poor" are often these part-timers with a limited contract period.

Basically both of them are having a very unhappy life. The real purpose of work-life balance that is discussed recently is to increase a "just right" work style.

Japan Already in Pressing Situation

In mid 1980s, I was a reporter in the business and finance news section of Asahi Shimbun, a major national newspaper in Japan. At that time, I was interviewing officials at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry), which was examining a system that would allow people to work more humanely by introducing measures to promote reduction of working hours similar to current work-life balance. It was because of the bashing by the United States saying "Japanese people work too much" against the backdrop of trade friction. To deal with this, the Ministry was trying to reduce working hours.

But then section chief had no idea about work-life balance. He said, "Japanese don't take a vacation because it costs too much. If we build more leisure facilities such as a golf course that people can use inexpensively, they will take vacations." How could he get the idea? He was working in a government office where long working hour was normal and apparently he thought "there was nothing to do at home." Having a full-time housewife, he was not able to imagine there was a "job" at home such as housework and child-care. On his day offs, he seemed to have nothing else to do but playing golf.

I was a mother of a small child at that time, therefore, I asked him "On weekend I want to take days off to look after my child, and on weekdays I want to go home soon after I finish my job. Don't you think people don't need to go to a golf course but may want to stay at home without thinking about jobs?" But he didn't seem to have a clue about what I was saying.

There are many aspects of human life other than work; child-care, interacting with friends, and such things as feeling good about hanging out the laundry on a sunny day. The measures for work-life balance won't be effective without clearly understanding the benefits of work-life balance.

As you know, the number of children is ever decreasing due to low birth rate in Japan. In short, the labor force population is decreasing and will decrease further in the future. Then women and elderly people would need to work if possible. But if women work long hours like men, they won't be able to look after their children, and the birth rate will drop even more. Therefore, we need to understand that this is a pressing situation where there is no other choice but to create a system that allows work-life balance for the Japanese society to further advance.

European Style of Work-life Balance

Let's look at the measures taken overseas for work-life balance issues.

In Sweden, the government examined a possibility to promote housewives' participation in labor force or to accept foreign immigrants during the labor force shortage in 1960s and 1970s, and decided to create a system to enable female participation because the social cost of women was lower than that of foreign immigrant workers. To accept immigrants as workforce, the government would have to bear the costs for language training and housing, but none of them was necessary for Swedish women.

But for women to work, the government had to create a mechanism in which society provides invisible work done by women such as housework, child and nursing care. Then the government built child and nursing care institutions. Part of housewives who started to work outside of their home worked at these institutions, but they also started to pay income taxes because they got paid as ordinary workers. Then the financial resources of Sweden also increased.

Another country whose different approach was successful during the economic recession in late 1970s and 1980s was Netherland. Due to accelerating deindustrialization across Europe, Netherland was also suffering from a huge financial debt. In Netherland, there was a clear distinction between the role of men and women; Men worked outside and women took care of family matters. Therefore, in many cases unemployment of husband instantly meant a loss of income source for the family. Then women felt pressed to work outside of their home, but women with children were not able to work full-time because there were no child-care centers in the society where women were generally full-time housewives.

Then the government thought of a parity of treatment for part-time workers. Under legislation, if the job description was the same, the hourly wage of full-time and part-time workers had to be the same regardless of working hours and social insurance and paid holidays were provided indiscriminately in proportion to the working hour. This resulted in greater job satisfaction of many part-time workers, although they worked short hours.

When this system was established, the consumption surged in the Dutch society. Women who earned money started to buy things. When the economy improved, the employment rate went up and the economy picked up further. There was a virtuous circle. The change was known across the world as "Dutch Miracle," in which the devastated Dutch society recovered.

Efforts of "Bethel's House" Resulted from Radical Change of Perspective

When Japanese people learn about the cases in other countries like Sweden and Netherland, unfortunately they tend to think about doing exactly the same thing. Europe is not necessarily right. But what Japan can learn from Europe is that work-life balance can never be achieved with conventional ideas. Using the existing resources efficiently, Japanese people should share wisdoms, be creative to improve work style and keep on changing conditions if they can. In fact, we are starting to see interesting cases in Japan.

In Urakawa, a depopulated town in Hokkaido Prefecture, there is a headquarters for regional activities called "Bethel's House" where mentally-handicapped people live together. Those who live there often find it difficult to get a job because they can't work for long hours due to their disabilities. Then they thought that "If we can only work for one hour, eight of us can work for a total of eight hours." This is a radical shift in thinking just like the discovery by Copernicus. Working short hours can hardly make a full-time equivalent income, but they are trying to make a living with the help of welfare subsidizes.

For instance, a bookstore that was delivering books to places like a hospital was considering stopping its delivery for cost reduction. Then people at Bethel offered to deliver the books because they often go to the hospital anyway. Like this, they were good at finding several niche businesses across the town.

These efforts derived from their willingness to work. I heard that when a social worker asked them, "What do you want to do?", many of them answered, "I want to make money." It may sound greedy, but it's not. For a human being, working and making money is a sort of human rights in a sense to gain an opportunity to prove its existence in a society.

Some of you may feel that it might be impossible for disabled people to work. Isn't it because of an assumption that everyone must work in the same way? European countries mostly have a good support system for disabled people to work, but in Japan, disabled people are thrown into a workplace straight away, faced with criticisms, and forced to quit if they can't work like other people. With a system that helps to provide relatively the same starting line, surprisingly I think anyone can continue to work within their capacity.

Respecting Humanity as Starting Point

This is not only about disabled people. A mother with small children also has a similar handicap. Small children can occasionally develop fever for many reasons. Then mothers often have to take a day off. When things like that happen, their colleagues and supervisors may want them to quit if they often take a day off. The situation would be different if they could think that "working mothers can make the most of the knowledge and know-how they newly acquire through working with children in their jobs when things are more settled." Depending on the reaction of their colleagues and supervisors, the comfort of work environment significantly changes.

Work-life balance is not so difficult. I believe we can actually accomplish many things if we understand the needs and combine the actions needed at each workplace. But to do that, we will be questioned the belief each of us has.

Work-life balance does not simply mean going home early. It is an idea to respect human beings. Let's say, I am very busy but I want to write back to someone. Can I decide to "rest from my job for a while to write a kind message"? This is a mind-set of work-life balance. We should keep it in our mind that we sometimes need to accord being kind to others and living more like a human priority over our jobs for a moment. I believe this is the first step to work-life balance.

Of course this is not accomplished only with mind-set. We also need a social system and a horizontal network for people to express opinions. When we can't speak up alone, we can get together and say "I want to do that, too" and "I need that, too."

The real independence is not struggling alone to live. It is about being able to find and ask for help to someone whom we can count on when we are in need. For that reason as well, I think we need to find peers, change systems, and vote for politicians we think are suitable. In my opinion, this is a path to work-life balance.


Mieko Takenobu (Editor of Asahi Shimbun)
She was a reporter of business and finance section, a correspondent in Singapore, an assistant manager of Culture and Art News Section until she became an editor on labor and gender issues in April 2007. She also served as a member of Council for Gender Equality under the Prime Minister's Office until 2005. She continues to raise awareness about the common ground between daily life and labor including low birthrate and female workers, part-time workers and poverty, and work-life balance. She is an author of "The Real Image of Work-sharing (Wakushearingu no Jitsuzo)" (Iwanami Shoten,Publishers, 2002).


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