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A rise in enthusiasm for the four-day work week in Japan

[April 13, 2021] BY Worker's Resort Editorial Team

A global movement toward a four-day work week

In December 2020, Unilever, one of the world’s leading consumer goods companies, announced that it would pilot a three and four-day work week for all employees in New Zealand until December 2021.

According to the announcement, employees will be able to decide their own working days. Although their working hours will be reduced, their salaries will not be affected. Depending on the outcome of the pilot program, Unilever employees around the world could end up with a new four-day work week system.

Perpetual Guardian, an asset management company based in New Zealand, introduced a four-day work week trial program in 2018. The results, which included increased productivity and employee engagement, were so positive that it was introduced permanently thereafter. In May 2020, Prime Minister Ardern called on companies to introduce a four-day work week as a measure to revitalize its domestic tourism industry by providing work flexibility in the age of COVID. As such, transformative new ways of working are starting to be considered.

The pursuit of the four-day work week, which has been debated in recent years by major European companies, has been implemented in limited cases. But with the spread of the coronavirus, it is once again gaining momentum. In this article, we will discuss the future of the four-day work week in Japan by introducing examples of its introduction in Japanese companies and the latest status of the four-day work week in Europe.

Precedents for the four-day work week in Japan

It was around 2015 when the news of a four-day work week hit the Japanese headlines. At the time, three companies in particular attracted attention as early adopters: Fast Retailing, which operates leading retailer UNIQLO; Sagawa Express, which does home delivery; and Yahoo! Japan, an internet company.

Fast Retailing, which decided to implement the system in 2015, has introduced a 10 hours per day, 4 days per week work system for regional regular employees. Sagawa Express also introduced a four-day work week for sales drivers in some areas of Japan in 2017. All of these employees work 40 hours per week, the same as a full-time employee, and are paid the same or similar amount as those who work five days per week.

Yahoo! Japan, on the other hand, introduced a four-day work week in 2017 for employees with childcare or nursing care needs. If employees apply, this system allows them to take one day off in addition to their normal two-day weekends. Unlike the two aforementioned companies, leave under this system is unpaid. Since working hours are not spread out over the other days, their salaries are reduced according to the number of days worked.

Also fresh in our minds is Microsoft Japan’s 2019 four-day work week test run, when all Fridays in August were given as special paid vacations.

These examples were introduced primarily to improve the work-life balance of employees, but many of the initiatives were limiting and did not lead to an expanding trend in Japan.

Trials of a 4-day work week in Japanese companies accelerated by COVID-19

In 2020, when the pandemic hit, an increasing number of companies in Japan began to consider the introduction of a four-day work week. For example, major electronics company Toshiba was considering implementing a four-day work week system for employees on the manufacturing floor who are required to come to work. Since July 2020, Toshiba has been testing this system at its plants in Japan.

Wacoal, a major Japanese clothing manufacturer, also introduced a four-day work week for all employees from April to the end of June 2020 under the state of emergency issued by the Japanese government. In addition to this, various Japanese companies, regardless of scale, have introduced a four-day work week in order to deter the spread of infection.

In May 2020, the Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) announced its “Guidelines for Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 Infections”, which included a four-day work week as one of the suggested measures.

After the state of emergency was lifted by the Japanese government in May 2020, many companies returned to normal operations. However, the introduction of the four-day work week, even if only temporary, may have given Japanese people a chance to think about different work styles. It also allowed for the more discussions around the merits and demerits of a shortened work week.

The latest situation in Europe and prospects for a post-COVID era

Before the pandemic, the four-day work week system was considered effective in improving productivity, work-life balance, and well-being. It attracted much attention, especially in Europe and the United States. Since the pandemic, however, people have begun to debate the pros and cons of the four-day work week, not only as a countermeasure to infectious disease but also to retain employees through programs like job sharing (where two part-time workers perform a job normally fulfilled by one full-time worker).

Germany’s largest industrial union, the Industrial Union of Metalworkers (IG Metall), is expected to demand a four-day work week in 2021’s labor-management negotiations in order to avoid large-scale layoffs.

In recent years, the German automobile manufacturing industry, which employs 830,000 people, has been reforming its production sites by implementing “e-mobility” technology such as electric vehicles. While the impact of this has led to continued layoffs, the pandemic has added to it, making the situation even worse for workers. IG Metall is advocating a job share-style four-day work week to protect workers from such large-scale layoffs.

In the UK, lawmakers and activists are calling for reduced working hours. They are requesting that Chief Finance Minister Rishi Sunak reduce weekly work hours and further advance job-sharing. This could help reduce the unemployment rate exacerbated by the pandemic as well as improve the economy.

In 2020, many companies in the UK aiming to retain employees implemented a four-day work week in exchange for temporary pay cuts. The results of a study by Autonomy, a UK think tank, indicated that the implementation of a four-day work week could create 500,000 new jobs.

Meanwhile, in Japan, discussions are in full swing after Kuniko Inoguchi, the chairperson of the LDP’s Headquarters for Promoting Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens, presented a draft proposal for an “optional four-day work week” at the beginning of 2021. This aims to popularize a system that allows people to have a four-day work week if they wish. Another goal is to meet the needs of diverse work styles and prevent a pandemic-induced economic depression.

The think tank Autonomy also stresses that shortening working hours by adopting a four-day work week will reduce air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions, thereby curtailing global warming.

With the need for new ways of working, which are now more prevalent due to the pandemic, and the use of measures necessary to combat global warming, the four-day work week has the potential to expand greatly in Japan in the coming years.

Writer of this post

Worker's Resort Editorial Team