TOKYO — It might seem more appropriate at a children's costume party, but a purple cape has become an unlikely weapon in Japan's efforts to get its workers to work fewer hours.
Employees at a Tokyo-based IT services company were recently forced to wear such "embarrassment" capes if they worked late on the third Wednesday of the month.
The shaming tactic worked: The amount of overtime worked was cut in half, according to Yoshie Komuro, the founder and head of Work-Life Balance, a firm that helps Japanese businesses change an office culture that for decades had accepted long working hours as a sign of success.
"It turned out that using the cape to instill the value that 'working late at night is not cool' was effective," she told NBC News.
This was not a case, however, of bosses imposing cape-wearing from on high.
Instead, the company’s president and another senior colleague asked employees for their suggestions on ways to cut down on overtime after attending a training course run by Work-Life Balance, and the employees suggested the cape.
It is not the only unorthodox idea being tested in Japan to improve work-life balance.
Three companies recently announced that they were jointly developing a drone to fly around the workplace after-hours playing a go-home tune to any lingering employees. The proposed song, the New Year's Eve standard "Auld Lang Syne," is commonly heard in Japanese supermarkets just before closing time.
It’s not yet clear whether these ideas will catch on more broadly, but they reflect a growing awareness within society of the dangers of Japan's workaholic culture.
A number of high-profile cases of "karoshi" — a Japanese term literally meaning death from overwork — have also prompted a government push to modernize the country's labor laws.
These victims included Matsuri Takahashi, 24, who was working in Tokyo for the advertising giant Denstu when she took her own life on Christmas Day in 2015. Labor standards investigators found that she had shown symptoms of depression after enduring 105 hours of overtime in a single month.
And the public broadcaster NHK recently revealed that one of its own employees had been overworked. Miwa Sado, 31, died from heart failure after logging an astonishing 159 hours of overtime in the previous month, with just two days off. Sado died in 2013, but the details of her death only came to light in October.
Such cases appear to be just the tip of the iceberg. There were 191 deaths recognized as being caused by overwork in the year before March, a tally that includes work-related brain and heart conditions and suicides.
Last year about 4.3 million people, or 8 percent of the Japanese labor force, worked more than 60 hours a week, according to the latest government data. With a standard workweek of 40 hours, those workers are putting in more than 20 hours of overtime a week.
Japan's culture of working long hours was formed during the boom times of the 1960s to the ’90s, when people who stayed at their desk late into the night were valued as hard workers, explained Komuro, the workplace consultant.
In many cases, she said, people were marked down on performance reviews if they didn't work a lot of overtime.
"Up until now, there has been a strong sense that ‘work is No. 1’, while family and holidays have taken a back seat"
Komuro, who has also served on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s industrial competitiveness council, is now one of the leading campaigners for reform. She stressed the need to improve working conditions so that people can realistically choose to work and raise children at the same time. Komuro argued that a failure to do so would risk entrenching Japan’s demographic challenges, like a falling national birthrate.
She said she has consistently advocated that "making an improvement on working hours in Japan would also lead to positive effects for Japan’s economy.”
Toshio Takagi, an associate professor at Showa Women's University in Tokyo, said some bosses exploited employees’ sense of family-like devotion to their employers. He cited the concept of "ie," a Japanese term that can mean family, home and clan.
Economic conditions changed drastically after the crashes of the 1990s and 2008, sapping employers’ bonds with their workers, Takagi said.
“But employees who think about companies as 'ie' still exist,” he told an audience at Temple University’s Japan campus in Tokyo. “To change the mentality of employees takes a long time.”
There is a move within the Japanese government to amend labor laws to impose new caps on overtime, but some campaigners believe the measures don’t go far enough. The proposal sets a hard limit of 720 hours of overtime a year, an average of 60 additional hours each month. However, it would allow an employee to work up to 100 hours of overtime in a busy month.
“Establishing an upper limit on working hours is groundbreaking, but I would like to see monthly overtime kept to a maximum of 40 hours as much as possible,” said Tetsuya Ando, the founder of Fathering Japan, a nonprofit organization that aims to help dads spend less time at the office and more time with their families.
Ando, who has three children, created the organization after encountering difficulty trying to be involved in child rearing and working at the same time. His own father was a workaholic.
“Japan’s work culture will not change instantly,” Ando said. “Up until now, there has been a strong sense that ‘work is No. 1,’ while family and holidays have taken a back seat.”
The younger generation, though, is more conscious of such issues, leaving them, Ando hopes, more open to change.
“Before the workplace reforms proceed," he said, "the Japanese people must think about reforming their way of life."