Do Japanese Work themselves to Death? Yes Says New Study - Dispatch Weekly

October 7, 2016 - Reading time: 7 minutes

The Japanese Government’s first examination of ‘Karoshi’ or ‘death from overwork’ has unveiled that staff at 12 percent of companies put in more than 100 hours overtime each month.

Karoshi: New Study Statistics

Photo Credit: Reuters
  • 12 percent of companies put in more than 100 hours of overtime each month, according to the Japanese government.
  • 23 percent of firms who were questioned worked 80 hours of overtime a month
  • The figures could be higher as only 1,743 of the 10,000 companies asked agreed to take part in the survey.
  • The health ministry found 93 suicides and attempted suicides were caused by overwork in the year that ended March 31.
  • Government statistics show that there was a massive increase of 1,456 legal cases filed over karoshi in a 12-month period that ended in March 2015.
  • Between 2004-2008 a total of 1,576 cases were filed.

What is ‘Karoshi’?

Photo Credit: Cory Schadt.
Photo Credit: Cory Schadt.

Japanese culture associates long hours as being a hard worker. Performing duties such as compulsory socializing with superiors after work is a normal part of working culture.

According to the International Labour Organization ‘karoshi’ is:

“Not a pure medical term but a sociomedical term that refers to fatalities or associated work disability due to cardiovascular attacks (such as brain strokes, myocardial infarction or acute cardiac failure) aggravated by a heavy workload and long working hours.”

Whereas the West emphasizes work-life balance, there is no such term in Japanese.

The History of ‘Karoshi’

In the 1970s wages were low so many workers worked overtime to earn more. This work culture contributed to the 1980s boom years when Japan became the second-largest economy in the world.

However in the 1990s, the bubble burst and so did employment as companies looked to restructure and lay off workers. This led to widespread anxiety of job losses and many worked extra hours in a bid to secure their employment.

On top of this, contract workers were added which made those working at companies insecure that they would replace them, working even harder to impress. Often this included unpaid overtime, which has been the norm till today.

What Causes ‘Karoshi’?

Japan has no legal limits on working hours. The labor ministry recognizes two types of karoshi: death from overwork that is often cardiovascular illness, and suicide due to stress.

  1. Long Hours
  2. Stress due to demanding work load and unachievable goals
  3. Bureaucracy and following orders even when they do not make sense
  4. Fear of being fired and financial insecurity

Unpaid Overtime

Koji Morioka, an emeritus professor at Kansai University said, “In a Japanese workplace, overtime work is always there. It’s almost as if it is part of scheduled working hours.”

“It’s not forced by anyone, but workers feel it like it’s compulsory.”

This has culminated in “service overtime” which is unpaid yet many workers comply, as this has traditionally been the way for years.

Is Enough Being Done to Protect Workers in Japan?

Although statistics by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that the average amount of hours per week for Japanese workers was 33.25 hours, this did not take into account unpaid overtime.

Legislation in November 2014 requires that the national government must conduct measures to prevent death and suicides from overwork.

However, the lack of penalties for companies who choose to not comply allows the system to remain intact.

Unions have signed agreements with companies that waive the legally recognized limits on hours that employees must work.

What actions should the Japanese government take to prevent unpaid overtime? Or is working hard just part of Japanese culture?

DW Staff

David Lintott is the Editor-in-Chief, leading our team of talented freelance journalists. He specializes in covering culture, sport, and society. Originally from the decaying seaside town of Eastbourne, he attributes his insightful world-weariness to his roots in this unique setting.