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Social spotlight: Japan's overwork epicenter -- the Diet

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, standing at right, delivers a policy speech during the plenary session of the House of Representatives on Jan. 22, the same day that the ordinary Diet session was convened. (Mainichi)

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has declared work-style reform the most important issue in the ordinary session of the Diet that began on Jan. 22. The Diet must thoroughly debate the amendments to the Labor Standards Act, which include putting a cap on working hours for the first time in 70 years.

    However, if the administration truly hopes to implement such reforms, it must first reconsider the way the Diet itself is currently run. Bureaucrats are forced to work long hours that could lead to death from overwork. I believe that if the Diet changed how it operated, there could be 10 times the debate in half the time.

    In 2012 and 2014, I attended Diet hearings to offer my opinion. My name would be called by the committee chairman, at which point I would approach the podium, speak and then return to my seat. Lawmakers posing questions would raise their hand, and after their name was called, they would stand at the podium, ask a question, then return to their seat. Then I would raise my hand, my name would be called, and I would go up to the podium and respond to the question. This back-and-forth was repeated around 20 times. I spent more time walking to and from the podium than I did speaking.

    The private sector has come up with ways to minimize time spent on meetings by using timers and sharing documents prior to meetings. How can we expect the Diet to institute work-style reform when it is run in a much more antiquated manner?

    During Diet sessions, the whole Kasumigaseki district in Tokyo, where government ministries and agencies are concentrated, becomes a city that never sleeps. Bureaucrats are constantly on call, waiting for questions from lawmakers to ministers, as the bureaucrats are tasked with gathering and preparing the information necessary for the ministers to answer the questions.

    When Foreign Minister Kono Taro was serving as the minister in charge of administrative reform in 2016, I headed a panel aiming to speed up work-style reform in Kasumigaseki. I looked into when lawmakers were submitting their questions and found, to my surprise, that on average, legislators turned in their questions at 8:30 p.m. the night prior to the question- and-answer session, with the latest one taking until half past midnight to do so. From these figures, overtime pay spent on bureaucrats during Diet sessions comes out to an estimated 2 billion yen. What a waste of taxpayers' money and bureaucrats' brainpower.

    When such working conditions are normalized in the public sector, bureaucrats give orders to the private sector in the same fashion. This leads to long working hours becoming commonplace at private companies that handle orders with tight deadlines from government ministries and agencies. In other words, Kasumigaseki is the epicenter of overtime. And the source of overtime in Kasumigaseki comes from Tokyo's Nagatacho district, where the Diet and legislators' offices are located. The repercussions are also felt by media, who must stand by 24 hours a day at the Diet and the prime minister's office.

    Yoshie Komuro

    Even if the lights at a company go out at a designated time, it only means that employees do overtime at home if they are required to prepare massive piles of materials for a board meeting. Unless there's a change in the practice of requiring large volumes of materials, the overworked will remain overworked.

    Productivity will not increase if the Diet makes revisions to the Labor Standards Act that clamp down on work-styles in the private sector without changing the way the government itself is run. The real epicenter, Nagatacho, must begin by instituting reforms in the Diet system. The question remains if the Diet can really become a place where lawmakers do not have to sacrifice childbirth and child-rearing, and people of diverse backgrounds and positions can take part. (By Yoshie Komuro, president of Work-Life Balance Co. Ltd.)

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