The ‘New’ Corporate Japan

The company with the most time-off

by Taketo Sekiguchi

There used to be a time when the country was crowned ‘Japan as number one’. This was some 30 years or so ago at a time when Japanese companies were highly praised for their commitment and hardworking nature.

However, times have changed since then. The previously respected notions of lifelong employee commitment and promotions based on length of service are now highly controversial. Views on long hours and overtime have also changed to become a regular social agenda. In the midst of this social change, Mirai Industry Co., Ltd. is receiving a lot of attention, carrying the title as ‘the company in Japan with most time-off’ .

Dark hallways and a single copy machine

Mirai Industry’s headquarters is around a 10 minute drive from Hashima Station (bullet train station) in Wanouchi, Gifu Prefecture. Geographically, it’s located pretty much in the midpoint of the island country surrounded by streams and paddies.

On the outside, the 7 storey building with its white walls and glass windows stands glistening in the sun. However, making your way inside, you’re met by a contrastingly dim hallway that’ll make you question whether they’re even open. Thankfully, there was the reassuring bustle of employees which also showed us the reason behind the dark hallways; each light has its own individual switch and employees would only turn them on as and when they needed to.

“It’s an old company habit to save on electricity but it also helps us reduce overall production costs.”

This was CEO Masahiro Yamada’s explanation as we sat in his equally dim office reception area.

Their cost-conscious habits don’t just end there though. For example they only have 1 copy machine between the 300+ employees and doors have had the knobs replaced with simple push/pull handles. As to the actual costs savings, who knows? But wherever you are in the building you’re constantly surrounded by the whole energy/cost saving notion.

“We apply the same ethos for overtime. My father hated having to factor in overtime costs into product pricing.”

Yamada’s father, Akio Yamada, was the founding CEO behind the company.

Getting ahead by being different

Born in 1931, Akio Yamada was set to take over his family business (Yamada Electrical Cable Manufacturing) shortly after graduating high school in Gifu Prefecture. However, he also had a passion for theatre and formed a troupe named ‘Miraiza’. Whilst his acting career didn’t flourish, with his 4 man troupe he formed an electrical goods component manufacturer based on his family business. Naturally he was CEO and affectionately named the company Mirai Industry.

Current CEO Masahiro Yamada explained that back then the company had no time-off. “My father worked so hard that on a rare day off, he would just sleep all day. We didn’t even get to play catch.”

This is how he recalls his relationship with his father when he was younger.

Since its foundation, the company steadily grew year on year. The boom in the Japanese economy certainly helped but Akio’s ‘different’ approach played a large part in the company’s success.

The company’s flagship product was shrouds/pipes for electrical cables. These were mainly made to standard specifications and the only free input the company had was color. Whilst the competition stuck to low cost gray, Akio opted to coat the vinyl tubes in ivory white that proved an instant hit. This quickly reflected in their shares reaching the highest value in the industry.

From their, the company continued to produce industry leading innovative products; they were the first in Japan to produce a soft vinyl housing made of polyethylene and also manufactured switches with 4 mounting holes as opposed to the traditional 2.

As the number of employees grew, the company incentivised its employees to submit new ideas and/or suggestions for improvement by offering 500 yen per submission. These would then be ranked and prize money would be awarded ranging from 1,000 yen for 5th place all the way up to 30,000 yen for 1st place.

As the ideas could be about anything, there were plenty suggestions for the workplace and not just product ideas. Things like ‘a wiping cloth in the cafeteria’ and ‘energy saving posters’ to name a few. This all culminates to an average of around 500 entries a year with one particular year tallying 1200 submissions. One employee is said to have even submitted more than 200 ideas.

Akio’s ethos is a simple one. “A company is only as strong as its staff. I use to cost savings to motive my staff.”

Overseas reception

During the ‘90s when Japan’s bubble economy burst, companies suddenly had more breathing space. In response, Akio decided to shorten his staff’s hours and also gave them extra time-off.

The working hours were revised to 8:30am~4:45pm which also included a 1hour lunch break. Over time and taking work home was strictly prohibited. In terms of holidays, staff were now entitled to 140 days off a year and could also apply for a further 40 days paid leave. No matter what anyone said, Akio wanted his staff to take ample time-off. So much so that now the company closes its office for 20 days during the New Year period.

With so few days in the office, staff were forced to be more efficient and worked hard to finish their respective tasks. Meetings for announcements, communication and discussion are a common place in most Japanese companies, but even these were done away with. Akio proudly admits how allowing his staff to make their own decisions for streamlining their work even led to the opening of a second office.

Having generous amounts of time-off and little overtime is a standard for most companies in the west. However, Akio explained with a smile that “this is on the premise that other staff members cover their work. We differ in that our staff are able to take consecutive days off and/or holidays without the need for cover. When I was on a business trip in Germany, everybody there would worry, asking me ‘…and you’re company’s ok?!’”

In fact, the title of being the company in Japan with the most time-off was officially confirmed by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Needless to say, this put a lot of their client’ concerns regarding working hours at ease.

All of the 800 or so employees at the company currently work full time with the retirement age sitting slightly above the norm at 70. Impressively, not one of these employees has ever had to take a pay cut and even with the generous time-off the company has never in its history fallen into the red. In fact, the company generates around 30 billion yen a year in revenue, securing a net profit of 3 billion annually. In terms of their return/profit ratio, this has always remained above 13% on average since the company started.

There are many companies in Japan these days that continue to exploit their staff. These are often referred to in Japan as ‘Black Companies’ (or ‘Black Businesses’). On the opposite end of the scale is Mirai Industry which has been labelled a ‘White Company’ for the way it values and rewards its staff.

There are many who want to learn from the company both from Japan and overseas. Despite charging visitors 2,000 yen per day, the company’s reputation means around 5000 people visit each year to learn from their ways.

50th anniversary staff vacation, 2015

Manufacturing Operations manager Riichiro Tomomoto has been with the company for 25 years and feels that the company offer a balanced lifestyle. He’s able to care of kids but also play golf on his days off as well as enjoy some Sunday DIY. When asking him about his days off he remorsefully added “My friends are always jealous of the amount of time-off I get. Although I still wish I had more.”

Tomomoto explained to us how since his first day with the company, he was always told to do everything and anything he feels would be beneficial.

“The fact that they leave it in my hands is a huge motivation” recalls Tomomoto, “We’re all thinking of ways to improve the company.”

Make no mistake, the ideas and thoughts are individual, but the company is very much a collective.

The company’s factory in Ibaraki was badly hit by a fire during the devastating 2011 east Japan earthquake. Responsible for producing just over 30% of their flag ship products, the factory was non-operational for 2 whole months. However, staff came together with workarounds to ensure that they never missed a single order.

The ensuing power shortage resulting from the nuclear meltdown during the same earthquake focussed the media on the company’s energy efficiency methods. Akio’s reply to the media was surprisingly simple; “We’re not trying to be energy efficient. We’re just trying to keep our costs down.”

Unfortunately in July this year, Akio passed away at the age of 82 following an illness. Although a huge loss both for his son Masahiro as well as the staff members, they continued to move forward.

“My father was such a huge part of my life. For 2 months I sat around in depression from the shock of his untimely passing.”

The company usually arranges an all expenses paid vacation for its employees every 5 years. In 2011, they had planned a trip to Egypt but had to cancel due to the political instability in the region. With the 100 million yen or so that the company had set aside for the trip, they decided to donate this to the areas affected by the east Japan earthquake the same year.

Next year marks the first company vacation in 10 years which also coincides with their 50th anniversary. No doubt they plan on going all out; currently a 6 day trip to Italy is being planned together with a staff photo contest while they’re there. The first prize? The opportunity to start a new company!

(translation: Atsushi Fujii)

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