The Winds of Change: Japan’s Overtime Reforms in 2023 and Their Impact on Work & Society


Japan’s overtime reforms in 2023 are part of preparing the workforce for staying competitive and overcoming the challenges of an aging society. Meanwhile, workers in France are protesting the increase in the retirement age.

Japan faces a different challenge – convincing its workforce to stop working overtime and go home. Known for its strong work ethic and long hours, Japan has struggled with the issue of overworking, even coining the term karoshi, which literally translates to “death from overwork.”

Recent reforms, part of Japan’s work-style reform program, in Japan’s overtime laws aim to shift towards shorter working hours to address this problem. Ultimately, these changes could positively impact employees, their families, corporate structures, and the broader economy – the challenge will be in the execution and management of these reforms.

This article will explore the implications of these reforms, including the opportunities and challenges they present for Japanese businesses and society.


Japan’s overwork culture originates from a combination of historical, cultural, and socioeconomic factors over time.

Some of the key aspects are:

  1. Meiji Restoration and Westernization: Following the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Japan’s new government was eager to learn and adapt ideas and technology to modernize and industrialize. The nation implemented key reforms in education and infrastructure, focusing on “catching up” with Western powers. This rapid adaptation transformed Japan into a major world power in a relatively short period.
  2. Post-World War II Economic Recovery: Japan focused on rebuilding its economy, aiming for rapid industrialization and growth. In this period, known as the “Japanese economic miracle,” workers were motivated to contribute to the nation’s development by working long hours and demonstrating a strong work ethic.
  3. Lifetime Employment System: A significant feature of Japan’s labor market during the post-war era was the lifetime employment system. This system guaranteed job security for employees until their retirement, fostering a strong sense of loyalty towards their companies. As a result, workers prioritized their jobs above their personal lives and were willing to work long hours for their employers.
  4. Seniority-based Promotion System: Japanese companies have traditionally followed a seniority-based promotion system, in which employees advance in their careers based on their tenure rather than merit. This system encouraged workers to demonstrate their commitment to the company by working long hours to improve their prospects for advancement.
  5. Collectivist Culture: Japanese society values group harmony and collective effort, which is reflected in the workplace. Employees are expected to work together as a team, and leaving before one’s colleagues is often discouraged. This cultural inclination towards group-oriented work practices contributes to extended working hours.
  6. Cultural Values: Japanese culture traditionally emphasizes hard work, dedication, and perseverance, as seen in concepts such as “gaman” (enduring hardship) and “gambaru” (doing one’s best). These values may contribute to a culture of overwork as employees strive to demonstrate commitment and resilience.
  7. Weak Overtime Regulations: Historically, Japan’s labor laws did not have stringent overtime regulations, allowing companies to enforce long working hours without facing significant consequences. This lack of strict regulations has contributed to the normalization of excessive work hours in the country.
  8. Inefficient Work Processes: Japanese work culture has often been criticized for its inefficient work processes and bureaucracy, which can lead to employees spending long hours at work without necessarily being productive.

In summary, the background of Japan’s overwork culture is rooted in historical, cultural, and socio-economic factors that have shaped the nation’s work environment over time. Recent labor law reforms and increasing awareness of the negative effects of overwork gradually lead to changes in this culture. However, addressing its underlying causes will require continued effort and systemic change.

The Reforms: An Overview

A key catalyst for change in Japan’s overtime culture may be the revision of laws governing overtime pay, which went into effect on April 1st, 2023.

These new regulations may level the playing field for employees by ensuring that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) must pay overtime rates similar to those of larger corporations. This modification aims to discourage excessive work hours and promote a healthier work-life balance among employees.

Overtime Limits:

One of the central features of the new overtime reforms in Japan is the establishment of specific overtime limits. Employees can no longer be required to perform overtime exceeding 100 hours in any one month, 80 hours averaged over a reference period of two to six months, or 720 hours a year. These limits will help protect workers from excessive work hours and related health risks.

Expansion of Overtime Pay Rules to SMEs

Starting from April 1, 2023, all employers in Japan will be required to pay a 150% premium to employees whose overtime hours exceed 60 hours a month. By extending this rule to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the government aims to provide equal treatment to workers across different company sizes and discourage excessive work hours.

Impacts on Society

Improved Work-Life Balance:

I remember working for a large firm and watching one of the senior members of the office team insert his time card into the clock when the “end of day” chime rang. He then returned to his desk for a few more hours of work. Today, his work time is more likely to be monitored by software on his computer and his employee ID.

This change could give employees more personal time, allowing them to engage in hobbies, spend time with family, and improve their well-being.

Enhanced Productivity:

Research has shown that overworking can lead to decreased productivity, as fatigued employees are more prone to making errors and less efficient.

By reducing working hours, Japan’s workforce may become more focused and productive during their working hours, ultimately benefiting businesses and the economy.

By reducing working hours, Japan’s workforce may become more focused and productive during their working hours, ultimately benefiting businesses and the economy.

This positive change can lead to a happier, healthier population, ultimately improving the overall quality of life.

Impact on Families:

Long working hours and dedication to the company over family have affected the quality and quantity of time families spend together. In theory, reduced working hours would provide extra time for employees to connect with their families, strengthen bonds, and engage in activities together.

However, maximizing this newfound time will require effort from all family members regarding communication and understanding.

This may involve redefining family roles and responsibilities and setting aside time for family activities.

The employees work six days a week at a small factory near my home. While the equipment may seem outdated, the “thunk” of a metal press popping out a new part from a piece of sheet metal, the clitter-clatter of metal parts hitting each other in an archaic tumbler for polishing, and the hum, hiss, and whirl of drills and grinders is only silent on Sundays and national holidays. The average age of the employees is well over sixty, and while they are small, they provide parts for significant firms in the area. They end their day at a reasonable hour, clean up, and go home.

Challenges and Threats

Old Habits Die Hard

Longstanding cultural and social practices can challenge adapting to new regulations or work norms. As this article highlights, progress in implementing changes has been slow – especially in a society that value quantity of work = long hours over quality of work.
Firms, employees, and society may struggle to balance the need for change with the desire to uphold traditional values and systems, such as lifetime employment and seniority-based promotions.

Given the decades of adherence to these practices and heavy social inertia, it is natural to be skeptical of such a radical change – this is often where terms like “Digital Transformation (DX)” are used as buzzwords.

As organizations gradually adjust to new norms, fostering open communication, collaboration, and a willingness to embrace change while respecting the existing cultural context is essential. However, one must remain cautious, as the deeply ingrained resistance to change might make the transition slow and difficult. Organizations may take considerable time and effort to fully adapt to new practices and successfully navigate evolving business environments and regulations.

Financial Burden on SMEs

Cultural factors and labor laws often discourage layoffs. As a result, it is possible that issues related to new overtime regulations and their impact on SMEs may not be adequately reported or addressed. Instead of layoffs, companies might resort to other cost-cutting measures or look for ways to adapt their business practices.

Sweeping problems under the rug is not a sustainable solution, but it could be a temporary response to avoid immediate consequences. It is crucial for businesses, employees, and regulators to work together to find long-term solutions that balance employee welfare and business viability.

Dealing with Inflationary Pressures

While many nations have experienced significant inflationary pressures, the financial pain is especially acute for Japanese consumers and businesses. Surging prices for food, electricity, fuel, and other services/materials and stagnant wages have resulted in a decline in consumer purchasing power. Both firms and households must manage their expenses carefully, which further pressures the overall economy.

Japan: Inflation Rate 2013~2023

source: tradingeconomics.com
United States: Inflation Rate 2013~2023

source: tradingeconomics.com


If implemented effectively, the changes in Japan’s overtime laws, including specific overtime limits and the extension of overtime premium rules to all employers, could have far-reaching effects on employees, families, and the broader economy.

While these reforms present opportunities for improved work-life balance and productivity, they also pose challenges related to corporate structures, compensation, and economic pressures. Successfully navigating these challenges will require concerted efforts from employers, employees, families, and policymakers to foster a supportive environment that promotes a healthy work-life balance while maintaining economic stability.

By addressing overwork culture through specific measures, Japan is taking significant steps towards transforming its workforce practices for a healthier and more sustainable future.