Deaths from Overwork Plague Japan

In the spring of 2015 Matsuri Takahashi, 24, joined the Dentsu advertising agency, one of the Japan’s most prestigious but demanding corporations, as a young recruit. Within a few months she was complaining to friends how exhausted she was.

“I want to die” she confided in a social media message to friends. And on Christmas day in 2015 she did just that, throwing herself from the roof of the company dormitory were she lived.

One year later, almost to the date, Tadashiki Ishii, the 65-year-old president of Dentsu, appeared at a press conference, bowing deeply in remorse and announcing that he would resign as corporate president early in the new year.

“We deeply regret failing to prevent the overwork of our new recruit, and I offer my sincere apology,” Ishii, said. “Although we took various counter measures, the issue of overwork has not improved,” he added.

Karoshi, a sinister-sounding Japanese word meaning death from overwork has become a hot topic ever since the Takahashi suicide. Last week the labor authorities in Fukui prefecture identified another suicide from overwork that took place last April.

In this case, a 40-year old section leader (manager) took his life after complaining about putting in as many as 200 extra hours a month. He was working for the Kansai Electric Power Co., on the restart of its nuclear reactors, a particularly stressful line or work, these days.

It is generally considered that the benchmark for karoshi is more than 80 hours of overtime or weekend work per month. Takahashi complained that she was forced to work for more than 100 hours of overtime. Sometimes she got only 10 hours of sleep a week.

Not all of the karoshi cases are so dramatic or so unambiguous. Sometimes it involves a seemingly perfectly healthy man (usually it is a man) in the prime of life who unaccountably dies from a heart attack or a stroke.

Karoshi entered the vocabulary in the 1980s, a time when Japan Inc. seemed like the economic juggernaut that would conquer the world, powered by tens of thousands of worker bees, known as salarymen willing to put in long hours for the good of the company.

At one time, the Japanese workaholic ethic was seen by trading partners, such as the United States, as practically an unfair trade practice. Washington and other trade partners pressured Japan to take more holidays.

To some extent Tokyo took these complaints to heart. Japan now boasts more holidays (15) than practically any other developed country, at least one and sometimes two a month. The former practice of working a half-day on Saturday is also rapidly disappearing.

What hasn’t changed is the fabled Japanese work ethic. The lights still burn well into the evening at many corporate offices. One of the measures Dentsu has undertaken was to turn them off by 10 pm.

Japan’s situation in the world has changed, but not the ethic. Japan may not be the economic world-beater that it was 20 years ago. But even in a stagnant economy there is still serious competition.

And with the declining birth rate, some important sectors of the economy, such as nursing home care, face labor shortages and have to compensate by putting more work and overtime on to the existing staff.

In October the labor ministry issued a “white paper” on the subject of karoshi, saying that under present conditions one worker in five is in danger of death from overwork, which it define as more than 80 hours of overtime per month.

The Tokyo prosecutor’s office has opened a case against Dentsu, but it is difficult to prove that deaths occurred due to overwork. There were more than 2,000 suicides a month in Japan in 2015. So far only three of them have been officially defined as karoshi – Takahashi, a Filipino guest worker in a program notorious for abuse and the more recent case.

In December the labor ministry said it would begin releasing names of the companies that abuse overtime rules. If the companies cannot be easily prosecuted, then maybe they can be shamed into treating workers better.

In the wake of the Takahashi scandal, more companies are insisting that their employees leave work at a reasonable hour and also take their allotted vacation time, which many Japanese pass up. Tokyo’s new governor, Yuriko Koike decreed that no municipal workers would stay past 8 p.m.

But it will take time to end old habits. Many Japanese stay at their desks late into the evening not so much because of the workload per se but because they don’t want their bosses to think that they are slackers.