Death by Overworking in the Japanese Workplace

“Karōshi” is the Japanese term for the death as result of overworking in the Japanese workplace. It is usually brought on by increased amounts of stress from working 60 hours or more in a week.

In 2016, the suicide of an overworked young woman, Matsuri Takahashi, has taken Japan’s working environment into spotlight.

Matsuri Takahashi, 24 at that time, committed suicide exactly on Christmas Day of 2015 following excessive overwork at a major advertising agency in Japan. Her suicide happened 8 months after she landed in her first full-time job in the same company right after college.

Investigations revealed that the woman was getting only less than a couple of hours sleep in a day before committing suicide. Thus, her death was acknowledged by the Mita Labor Standard Inspection Office in Tokyo as death related to work or better known in Japanese as “karoshi”.

Subsequent reports released by the labor standard inspection office further revealed that the woman had over 105 hours of overtime in a month.

Under the Japanese Labor Law, only 8 hours a day or 40 hours in a week is legal. And, if Japanese firms want to extend their employees’ working hours, they must arrange special treaties to receive approval from the government according to the Labor Standards Act No. 36.

Under the limitation stated by the said treaty, working hours could be decided among employees, employers and labor unions. However, labor unions in Japan usually favors with the employers’ decision.

The case particularly emerged in public and death by overworking or “karoshi” once again took the center stage. The issue gained public reactions. Thus, the labor standard inspection office conducted compulsory inspection to the company she was working with. It was later discovered that there was a corporate norm to make sure its employees are recording less working hours when they enter and leave the office.

Incidentally, the case of Matsuri Takahashi was not actually the first. Back in 1991, a young employee also committed suicide in the same company for the reason. In fact, the previous case had prompted the Supreme Court to order the said company to improve its working condition in 2000.

Apparently, the recent case of Matsuri Takahashi proved that the company’s working condition have not changed following the death of its employee in 1991. Furthermore, the company even attributed the poor woman’s case partly on a serious lack of manpower in the growing divisions like the internet advisement.

“We should have come to grips with the situation by increasing the number of staff in those divisions”, -CEO of Dentsu

In Japan, lifetime employment still remains in most company, making it difficult for them to simply hire and fire people depending on the company’s needs. Those words expressed by Dentsu‘s CEO only defines the Japanese social structure – stable but has low mobility, which may eventually cause stress toward employees.

In light of Matsuri Takahashi’s case, the Abe administration conducted a conference to improve working conditions in Japan. The first meeting was held in 2016. Also, the Japanese government broadcasted its first report about death by overwork. The report claimed that 23% of the major companies in the Japan have possibility of having illegal over-work. Therefore, the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare, Yasushisa Shiozaka, the one responsible for labor standard inspection office, highlighted the significance of strengthening these sectors. So far, even the labor standard inspection agency is currently suffering from lack of manpower compared to the growing numbers of firms that they need to inspect. After receiving so much criticism from the public, the Labor Standards Act No. 36 is now considering amendment since it has proven its incompetency. However, despite the fact that many of the country’s labor law have been amended, its social norm which includes the strong corporatism, are preventing such laws to be no more than self-enforced control and effort responsibility.

Aizelle Joe