Forget what you have heard about the hard-working Japanese salaryman: since the early 1990's, the Japanese have drastically slackened their work habits. Indeed, Tokyo University economist Fumio Hayashi has demonstrated that the main reason behind Japan’s 20 years of stagnation has been the decrease in the quantity of work performed by the Japanese.Really? Is that what caused so much trouble -- the work weeks of our bankers and bureaucrats have been too brief? As if what they were doing when they were on the clock was not damaging enough.
The government itself has led the way here, starting with its decision to close public administration buildings on Saturdays. Japan’s banks followed suit. From 1988 to 1993, the legal work week fell 10%, from 44 hours to 40. This, as much as anything, helped to bring Japan’s long-running post-WWII economic “miracle” to its knees...
Besides, what planet does the legal limit describe anyway? Aside local government workers (kōmuin) I know of no one who works only a 40 hour week.
I guess that I should not surprised at these assertions, though. From his website, it seems that Professor Hayashi's most frequent collaborator has been Professor Edward Prescott.
The essay seems to only go downhill after the above. I cannot imagine how M. Sorman can elide from claiming that Japan suffers from too a short work week to a condemnation of Japan's declining productivity without suffering a bout of cognitive dissonance at some point in between.
If the productivity in retail is so low, then it is either because
(a) shop owners are staying open too many hours relative sales, or
(b) shops are employing too many people relative sales.
As Mr. Sorman has planted his flag upon the proposition that long hours are a good, the answer to what ails Japan must be (b).
This accusation, coming from a citizen of France, a country of structurally high unemployment and an immense civil service, is pretty rich.
That Sorman highlights the declining relative productivity of this blessed land's retail sector as his sole example, without acknowledging or even perhaps being aware of the tax filing incentives involved, is telling.
And what, except cheap snidery, is the point behind these two seemingly discombulated paragraphs?
Nearly half of the Japanese population is either retired or near retirement age, and they worked very hard to achieve a high level of comfort. Thanks to them, despite the blighted economy of the “lost decade,” Japanese income is still higher than it is in Europe. Moreover, unemployment is low compared to the Western world, because the unproductive distribution sector absorbs young people who cannot find better jobs. Stagnating Japan has thus remained a peaceful and rather conservative society.What is this, if not Euro-elitist puffery? "Work harder or accept more immigrants, you laggards."
By contrast, a higher growth rate would require fewer golf breaks for salarymen and significant immigration in a nation that is unaccustomed to foreign intrusion and different cultural habits. Are the Japanese really ready to accept such a cure?
Mr. Sorman. Japan is not a European country. Surprise, surprise. Have you never wondered why Japan scores so low on so many international country ratings? Perhaps it is because the rules in most cases have been written for our edification by Europeans, with the Nordics and Switzerland as the ideals?
I am sorry, I am being intemperate. However, this is a syndicatable column. It is purportedly on a country with which I am somewhat familiar. I am afraid, however, I am at a loss as to which country M. Sorman is describing.
I would venture, dear reader, that so is he.
Later - I admit I was so mad when I read the essay the first time that I did not even notice the egregious "Japan's 150 million people" error.