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Death by Overtime, Japan’s Work Culture Crisis

In 1996 a 29-year-old Japanese male was reported dead as a result of a stroke, in the shipping department of Japan’s largest newspaper company.

Cause of death? Karoshi. Translated as literally “overwork death”, this gentleman’s demise sadly was, and is still is not, uncommon for workers amongst his age group or occupation in Japan. With the eventual cause of death most frequently coming from cardiac arrest, stroke or even suicide, Japan’s brutal overwork culture is literally killing its labour force. The difficulty in determining whether a heart attack or stroke has been caused directly by overwork makes it very difficult to keep accurate karoshi figures. However, the official number is often cited as several hundred deaths a year.

The thought of leaving unfinished work at the end of the day for many Japanese workers is a sign of disloyalty to the company. As a result, employees of particularly private, city-based firms work outrageously long hours. According to data compiled by the Japanese government, about 22% of Japanese workers work more than 49 hours a week, compared with 16% of US workers and 11% in France and Germany. In addition to this, it has been found that although Japanese employees are currently entitled to an average of 18.5 days of paid holiday a year, in reality, few even come close to taking their full quota. Long days, long weeks and next to no holidays, it is no wonder that Japan’s labour force is facing a serious mental health crisis.

Although the problem effects workers of all ages and genders, it has been seen to disproportionately effect young men. A poll by the Research Institute for the Advancement of Living Standards found that almost a third of men working for private companies in Tokyo and Osaka spent more than 12 hours a day at the office. The avid obsession and expectation for Japan’s young men to gain promotion, earn more and reach success is proving to be an exceedingly fatal societal mind set.

Japan is the third largest producer of automobiles in the world and although Japan’s work culture is likely to have helped turn Japan into the economic power it is today, these unsustainable workplace habits are coming back to bite. “Japan’s corporate warriors are victims of their own success” says Justin McCurry, writer at the Guardian. You don’t need to be an professor of economics to know that an unhealthy work force is also an unproductive one.

In early 2017 Japanese government introduced the ‘Premium Friday’ scheme that suggested companies make staff go home at 15:00 on the last Friday of the month in order to spend time with friends and family (and catch up on sleep) Although Prime Minster Abe’s scheme seemed, on the face of it, like a good idea, there were musings amongst commentators that the early finish was a just a ploy to boost consumption at the end of each month to improve growth figures. This being the truth or not, the scheme was seen to get off to a lukewarm start with only 11% of the workforce actually participating. Abe has since come under fire for being unable to implement any efficacious policy in this area.

In 2018, Japan’s total deaths from overwork feel to 158, the lowest in a decade. This comes as earlier this year a white paper on Japan’s overwork crisis suggested that progress toward eliminating one of the country’s most notorious workplace problems was slow. Despite this, recent statistics have shown that the Japanese government is finally waking up to this very serious social health issue.

Aidan Hall

Featured image courtesy of ‘HopeHill’ via Flickr. No changes made to this image. Image use license found here.

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