By Scott North – north [at] hus.osaka-u.ac.jp
“Regular” employment in Japan connotes unlimited samurai-style devotion by employees, with employers responsible for worker well-being and employment stability. Japan’s courts cite this relationship ideal to restrict employers’ legal right to dismiss workers. Therefore, to cut costs, employers have turned to increasing non-regular employees, which now comprise some 40% of Japan’s labor force. The lower income and poor career prospects of these non-regular workers inhibit marriage, birthrates, and consumption.
Central to the structural reforms that comprise Abenomics’ so-called “3rd Arrow” is the formulation of work rules to support the expansion of “limited regular employment” (limited by job title, duties, location or hours). The Prime Minister touts “varied forms of regular employment” as win-win-win for employers, workers, and the nation, a way to simultaneously reduce employer costs, enable labor mobility, raise productivity, accommodate women’s career aspirations, and promote work-life balance—all elements of Abe’s promise to create a “World Top-Level Employment Environment and Workstyle.”
Some opponents, however, see “limited regular employment” as self-contradictory. Unlimited employment and mutual commitment (loyal service given in exchange for livelihood protection and employment stability) are, they say, shakai tsuunen—the common social sense of proper employment relations. Feminists say that most limited regulars will be women, and the category will be another form of indirect discrimination that denies equal pay for equal work. Unions expect heightened interpersonal tensions, as well as semantic confusion, between the two kinds of regular workers, who in many cases would be working side-by-side. The outcome might be greater inner-firm competition rather than better work-life balance.
A major fear is the dismissal of limited regulars by moving or closing facilities, eliminating (renaming) jobs, or imposing onerous duties. Legal challenges arising from limited regular employment practices will be a small price to pay in order to shift the common social sense of employment relations from stability to mobility. Some prominent labor experts, however, do not foresee changes to Japan’s dismissal law. They say unlimited work causes workplace depression and karoshi (death from overwork), and that it would be better for all employment to be limited.
Votes on employment reforms and more than 30 other structural reform proposals are expected in the Diet this summer.
Scott North teaches sociology at Osaka University.
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- Jason Clenfield, “Abenomics at Risk as Workers Struggle to Keep Up with Inflation,” Bloomberg News, 2014.
- Prime Minister’s Office, 産業競争の強化に関する実行計画 [Plan to Strengthen Industrial Competitiveness], 2014 (in Japanese).
- Frank K. Upham, “Stealth Activism: Norm Formation by Japanese Courts,” Washington University Law Review, v. 88, no.6, 2011.