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Cases of death from overwork soar in Japan

Julian RyallApril 5, 2016

As a new generation of employees joins their companies, experts express concern over the pressure that is heaped upon Japanese workers - and the growing problem of 'karoshi.' Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

Workers assemble Toyota Motor Corp.'s third-generation Prius hybrid cars at the automaker's Tsutsumi plant in the city of Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, 08 June 2009 (Photo: Shinji Kita +++(c) dpa - Report+++)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Some 910,000 new hires attended welcome ceremonies at companies large and small across Japan on April 1. Greeted with speeches from presidents and CEOs and urged to do their best for an organization that the new arrivals are encouraged to consider their new family, few are likely to have pondered the possible negative impact of their entry into the Japanese workforce.

Even fewer will have remembered the case of Mina Mori, who was 26 years old when she killed herself in June 2008, just two months after joining Watami Co., which runs a chain of "izakaya" bars.

It was not until December 2015 that the company agreed to pay compensation of Y130 million (1.03 million euros) to Mori's parents for her death. The company - which was founded by Miki Watanabe, a politician in the upper house of the Japanese parliament - was also ordered by the court to provide details of the settlement and an apology on its website.

Elderly people work out with wooden dumb-bells in the grounds of a temple in Tokyo on September 17, 2012 to celebrate Japan's Respect-for-the-Aged-Day (Photo: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/GettyImages)
'What we are seeing is an ageing workforce as fewer young people come through,' says expertImage: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/GettyImages

As well as working a 10-hour shift, which finished after her last train had gone - meaning she had to stay in the bar overnight - Mori put in an average of 140 hours of unpaid overtime per month.

In a note she wrote shortly before her death, Mori said, "My body hurts. I feel exhausted. I Feel emotionally numb. I can't move as fast as I want to. Please help me."

'Karoshi' cases soar

Government statistics released this week show that legal cases filed over "karoshi" - the Japanese term that means death from overwork - soared to 1,456 in the year that ended in March 2015. In comparison, a total of 1,576 cases were filed between 2004 and 2008.

The situation is being exacerbated, analysts point out, by a shortage of workers in several sectors, including healthcare, social services and construction.

"There are lots of reasons why we are seeing this problem becoming worse, but it really all boils down to the excessive sense of competition in Japanese society," said Hiroshi Kawahito, president of the Kawahito Law Office in Tokyo, and a member of the National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi.

"Since Japan's economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, the economy has stagnated, meaning that companies have been forced to implement downsizing measures and take on more temporary workers instead of full-time salaried staff," he told DW.

"At the same time, full-time workers were expected to put in longer hours and came under stronger pressure to perform," he said. "Their fear was that if they didn't they would lose their full-time status, so they endured the situation."

In the quarter of a century that has passed since the bubble burst, long hours, unpaid overtime, shorter holidays and fewer perks have become the norm at Japanese workplaces.

Labor laws lack teeth

"Basically, the problem is that Japanese labor laws have no teeth," said Kawahito.

"European countries have limits on the hours that employees can work and those are enforced," he said. "We have the same limits in Japan, but companies get around them by signing agreements with workers and unions."

Fearful for their jobs, workers have caved in to companies' demands and a 12-hour working day is considered quite normal, Kawahito added.

Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, says Japan's working conditions are "atrocious."

"Japanese people put in punishingly long hours, the work they do is generally tedious, their vacations are short, there is immense pressure on them, and the corporate culture means they are expected to spend a lot of time drinking with their colleagues when they do finally get out of the office," he told DW.

Dujarric is not convinced, however, that Japan is experiencing a spike in karoshi cases.

"Working for a Japanese company has been like this for generations, so what I believe is that we are seeing an ageing workforce as fewer young people come through, with older 'salary men' far more likely to suffer high blood pressure or a heart attack," he explained.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks down as he speaks to the media at his official residence in Tokyo February 1, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Toru Hanai)
PM Abe's government attempted to address the problem, passing a law in 2014Image: Reuters/T. Hanai

Government efforts

The government has attempted to address the problem, passing a law in late 2014 designed to prevent karoshi by monitoring companies and researching cases of death or ill-health brought on by overwork. Last year, authorities investigated 2,362 complaints and reported violations in 60 percent of cases.

And Kawahito believes that a fraction of the cases are being reported or investigated.

"If we look at mental health cases, we can see a sharp increase in reports of depression among workers brought on by pressure in the workplace," he said.

And unless the problem is solved soon, Kawahito believes, the impact on Japanese society will be dramatic.

"Younger workers are obliged to put in so many hours at their companies now that they don't have time for a boyfriend or a girlfriend," he points out. "It's all work, work, work. That, in turn, means they are getting married much later - if they get married at all - and they're not having children.

"The government says it is worried about population decline and a shrinking workforce with more older people, but they are not doing enough to help people who do want to have a normal family life," he said.