If you’re reading this at work and it’s past leaving time – bookmark the page, go home and finish it tomorrow.

That’s what the protagonist in one of Japan’s hottest new TV dramas would do. And the fact the show’s a hit is a sign the country’s work culture is changing.

Image: TBS

The first series of Japanese network TBS’s Watashi, Teiji de Kaerimasu (“I Will Not Work Overtime, Period!”) ended in June, having built up a firm following on social media: 74,000 Twitter followers and 93,000 Instagram followers, to date.

It wasn’t just the love triangle between colleagues that got viewers talking – it was the determination of Yui Higashiyama (Yuriko Yoshitaka) to leave the office on time, when the clock struck 18.00.

The show is based on the novel of the same name by Kaeruko Akeno, who had struggled with Japan's culture of ‘presenteeism’ – when job insecurity leads to employees putting in long working hours just to be seen to be in the office.

The mother-of-two told The New York Times she was writing up until she was taken into the delivery room to have her second child: “What is considered honourable isn’t how much you achieve, but how you manage to never take a rest...

“It took me such a long time to accept the fact that it’s OK not to work on weekends or on weekday nights.”

Long days

In Japan, the percentage of employees who work more than 50-hour weeks, considered “very long hours”, is almost 18%, considerably higher than the OECD average of 11%.

Image: Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare

The country even has a phrase for death by overwork – “Karoshi”, meaning sudden death from heart failure, stroke, or committing suicide due to stress and sleep deprivation.

Japanese government data shows the number of deaths from brain and heart diseases or suicide caused by overworking stayed at around 200 for the five years up to 2016.

While Japan has a long history of working hard, stemming from the pre-war days when many lived in poverty, the phrase karoshi was coined in the 1970s.

In Watashi, Teiji de Kaerimasu, Yui’s determination to leave her web design company on time each day stems from not having seen much of her own father due to his punishing work schedule.

Work-life balance

Image: OECD

But the enlightened boss of the fictional firm Net Heroes actively encourages her, reflecting a new Japanese law that limits overtime to no more than 45 hours a month. Companies violating the rules may be fined.

The legislation currently only targets big companies, but there are plans to roll it out to small and medium-sized businesses from next year.

The government has also launched an unusual public advertising campaign, designed to stop big companies passing on the stress of limited hours to smaller ones, with the slogan: “Stop bullying subcontractors!”

The cap on working hours is part of recently reelected prime minister Shinzo Abe’s labour reform strategy, designed to tackle Japan’s shrinking workforce.

Some critics are sceptical whether the new laws will ease Japan’s overworking culture. But with the government and TV stations embracing the idea of going home on time, things could be moving in the right direction for the country’s workforce.