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Japan Nov 14, 2016

Business seminar for Japanese companies in Bavaria on “Work-Life-balance – A comparison of Germany and Japan” featuring journalist Toru Kumagai.

The contact with Japanese companies which have successfully settled in Bavaria remains close. After all, “After Care Service” is very important to us. We continue to be the first port of call for a variety of issues. For example, if the Japanese companies want to intensify their networking with Bavarian businesses, we can broker the contact to the networking partners in Bavaria. Or, if companies want to expand after being at a location for several years and need assistance when looking for a new site, we remain the right point of contact. Of course, our service is free.

And sometimes there are questions Japanese companies have concerning the very different business practices in Germany when compared to those in Japan. We are often asked why hardly anybody can be reached at the office in Germany after 2 pm on Friday afternoons; or why German employees have 30 days paid holiday per year. Why is work-life-balance such a big issue here? And why is Germany such an economic powerhouse despite all this?


Or to put it bluntly: “Why do things run smoothly in Germany despite 150 days of leisure time per year?”


In an effort to find answers to these questions, a business seminar with the Japanese journalist Toru Kumagai took place at the Bavarian Ministry of Economic Affairs in cooperation with the Japanese Consulate General in Munich, the business promotion of the City of Munich and the Japan Club Munich – Mitokai. Mr. Kumagai, born in Tokyo in 1959, is a former foreign correspondent for NHK (Nippon Hosou Kyokai - Japan Broadcasting Corporation) who has lived in Germany since 1990. Working as a freelance journalist, he has published numerous books on current developments in Germany.


Representatives of Japanese companies were welcomed at the Ludwig-Erhard Festsaal in the Bavarian Ministry of Economic Affairs. The event attracted nearly 100 participants who listened attentively as Mr. Kumagai revealed the secrets behind the German work ethic step-by-step.

After the hour-long presentation, the German “phenomenon” – how Germany can achieve a high productivity despite shorter working hours than in Japan – seemed much clearer to everyone. 


According to Mr. Kumagai, the biggest difference between Germany and Japan is the fact that German workers have an employment contract which is legally binding. The contract specifies exactly which rights and obligations the employee and the employer are subject to. For example, according to Paragraph 3 of the Hours of Work Act (ArbZG), an employee’s daily working hours on workdays may not exceed eight hours. It can be increased up to ten hours, but only if the daily working hours do not exceed an average of eight hours within six calendar months or within a period of 24 weeks. Working on Sundays and public holidays is generally prohibited in accordance with Paragraph 9 ArbZG. Violations of the ArbZG can result in fines of up to EUR 15,000 which the responsible superior has to pay out of his own pocket. 


In contrast, no employment contracts with clearly defined provisions exist in Japan. The works council, which represents the interests of employees, plays a major role in Germany. In Japan, its role is negligible.


But it is not only the absence of statutory provisions that have a negative impact on workers in Japan, it is also the cultural background of Japanese society that plays a major role in preventing an improvement of the working conditions for employees in Japan.


In Japan the contact person has to be permanently available for customers


The following was cited as an example: In Japan, it is very important that the right contact person is always available to customers. But when a customer is told that the responsible contact is currently on holiday and is not available to handle the customer’s issue, it is safe to assume that the company will be confronted with the customer’s intense anger, which may, in the worst case, result in the cancellation of the customer’s order.


However, in Germany, work is not tied to one particular person, but rather to the company. Rules of representation and, ideally, a database system exist which can assist the person acting on behalf of the absent colleague, be it due to holidays or illness. Aside from that, and unlike in Japan, customers in Germany understand when someone cannot be reached because they are on holiday. After all, your own annual holiday is coming up, or you were off exploring some region around the world yourself. With this in mind, customers either wait patiently for their contact to return or find it perfectly acceptable that a replacement is of assistance.


The shortage of specialist staff also results in companies having to reevaluate their strategy in order to come out on top in the competition for highly qualified workers. German employers are placing increased emphasis on work-life-balance, as securing the services of qualified personnel is otherwise very difficult. Companies must also be wary of adverse publicity in the media should poor working conditions for employees become public.


Conclusion: In the opinion of Mr. Kumagai, Japanese society is lacking a general consensus that holidays are as sacred as they are in Germany. But it would not suffice for just one company in Japan to improve the working conditions for its employees so that they can enjoy life more. Japan is, after all, the country with an “Omotenashi” culture. This means that the guest and the customer always come first. It may well be a subject of debate whether this background would allow the “German work model” to be successful in Japan. Our event was intended to sensitise Japanese companies in Bavaria for the German way of business: why Germans are so productive despite having so much free time.


The participants held lively discussions with the speaker after the conclusion of the seminar. The event was topped off by a standing reception featuring Bavarian and Japanese specialities.

Of course there are exceptions and black sheep in Germany, but all in all I have the impression that my colleagues not only enjoy their work, but also greatly enjoy their lives and free time.


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