Japan Has a Word for ‘Working to Death’
A young woman’s suicide has sparked a backlash against the country’s labor conditions. But death by overwork is so common there’s even a word for it: karoshi.
TOKYO—On Christmas evening, Dec. 25, 2015, newly hired Ms. Matsuri Takahashi, 24, threw herself from the top floor of the dormitory of Dentsu, Japan’s largest and most prestigious advertising firm.
Last September, the Mita Labor Standard Inspection Office announced the results of its investigation and ruled that Takahashi’s suicide was actually karoshi—death from overwork. And it was not the first time a Dentsu employee had succumbed in that way.
The incident was followed by the release of a Japanese government white paper which found that 93 people had committed suicide or attempted suicide due to overwork in 2015.
The case became the focus of a backlash against Japan’s chronically awful working conditions—conditions that allegedly have worsened under the reign of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Japanese government proposed this week a plan to put a cap on working hours—at a maximum of 100 hours of overtime in a month—but is it any more than a perfunctory gesture? Japanese press and labor experts are skeptical.
According to Japan’s labor laws, in principle only eight hours of work a day or 40 hours a week is allowed. One hundred hours of overtime adds, in effect, 12.5 workdays to that month—which means working seven days a week and then some.
Death from overwork and ceaseless overtime are closely related to the rise of what in Japan are known as burakku kigyo, loosely translated as “dark companies” or “evil corporations.” Generally the reference is to firms in which working hours are long and brutal, unpaid overtime is endemic, and harassment at work—including sexual harassment and bullying—is part of the workplace culture.
In 2013, a year after the militantly pro-business and right-wing Abe government took power, burakku kigyo was chosen as one of the top 10 buzzwords of the year.
For the last five years, a group of journalists and labor activists have selected some of Japan’s most infamous firms for “The Most Evil Corporation of The Year Award” and, not surprisingly, Dentsu won top place last year.
Mister Donut might be a contender this year. It was reported on Monday that the operator of a Mister Donut franchise was ordered by Tsu District Court to pay 46 million yen ($408,000) in indemnities to the family of a 50-year-old store manager who passed away five years ago due to overwork. He had died in his car mid-commute from fatal arrhythmia. The judge ruled, “For six months preceding his death, the man worked 112 hours of overtime a month. There was physical and mental stress causing illness that can be linked to his passing away.”
Following the ruling, the franchise owner issued a statement saying, “We will take this verdict gravely and the whole company will work to improve the labor environment.”
It is almost the same line that Dentsu has now used twice. In fact, Japanese firms always say this when caught working their employees to death.
Many people outside Japan wonder why people don’t just quit their jobs rather than working themselves to death. It’s not that simple. Stoic endurance is considered a virtue in Japan and leaving the office before one’s superiors or seniors is considered rude.
In addition, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the number of jobs that are counted as regular employment—that is, lifetime employment with benefits and a chance for promotion—have fallen from a national average of 85 percent in the ’80s to fewer than 60 percent at present.
Good jobs are hard to find and employers use that leverage to force remaining employees to put up with horrific workloads. When newly hired, they are expected to last at least two years at a job before changing workplaces; otherwise they are looked upon by society as unreliable. The result is that fresh college graduates, like Ms. Takahashi, are much more likely to endure terrible job conditions in hopes of being able to find another good job down the road.
She had been assigned to the Online Advertising division of Dentsu, a division that reportedly had been staffed by 14 people before her arrival and cut down to six during her employment. Her family said that her supervisor constantly berated her for her failure to keep up with the onerous workload.
In online posts she made before her death, Takahashi lamented, “When you’re in the office 20 hours a day, you don’t understand what you’re living your life for anymore. (It’s so pathetic) you come to laugh.” Another in November of 2015, read, “Whether I’m working to live or living to work, I don’t know anymore. That’s life.”
Ichiyo Matsuzaki, an expert on workplace stress at Tsukuba University also notes, “Many people who commit suicide due to overwork are so sleep deprived at the time that they lose the ability to make rational judgements. Death seems like the easiest solution to them.”
Matsuri Takahashi’s death sparked a chain reaction in the business world that came to be known as “Dentsu Shock.” The company is one of the most well-known in Japan, and its fall from grace garnered much publicity. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare took a surprisingly harsh stance with the firm, and labor inspectors raided its offices in November.
The investigators concluded that Ms. Takahashi had worked over 105 hours overtime in a one-month period prior to her death, exceeding what the ministry calls the “Karoshi (death from overwork) Line” which is 80 hours of overtime in a month. Anything over 100 hours is considered a serious threat to the wellbeing of the employee. The ministry uses this as a guideline to determine the likelihood of health problems in relation to overwork.
The response to this case was surprisingly swift. On Dec. 28, the ministry referred to the Tokyo Prosecutor’s Office charges for violations of the labor laws against Dentsu and an executive who was Ms. Takahashi’s direct supervisor. So there is a chance that someone will be indicted.
The Labor Inspector’s Office is also investigating the firm to see whether it intentionally had employees hide their overtime working hours. Usually a case like this would take more than a year before being referred to the prosecutors.
The Abe government’s response to the scandal has been reactive and measured. On Tuesday, at the Upper House Budget Committee meeting, when pressed about a cap on working hours, Prime Minister Abe said, “We are moving forward so as to clear the standard for karoshi,” and went on to indicate that he is considering the maximum allowable hours of overtime to be capped at 100 hours a month.
It did not seem to occur to him that the goal of the labor standards laws is not to just avoid death, but to actually create a better and humane working environment.
Indeed, Abe’s government is planning to amend labor laws so as to introduce a system which entirely removes paid overtime for certain specialized white-collar jobs. If there is no overtime pay, essentially there is no record of overtime for the unlucky beneficiaries of the new system. The contradiction is not lost on the general public.
“The fact that they came up with a 100-hour cap is because PM Abe is listening to those running the businesses, not the people working. Japanese business executives at their core would like for employees to work as much as they can without dying.”
Dentsu’s case shows that even when a company is singled out for reprimand, abusive work practices don’t necessarily end.
The president and CEO of Dentsu, Tadashi Ishii, announced he would resign to take responsibility for the death of his employee. On Jan. 18, a Dentsu executive announced that five board members would receive penalties of a three-month 20-percent pay cut. Even as early as October 2016, Dentsu implemented a system in which all office lights would be shut down from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. It seems like they are taking it all seriously.
But what has really happened? Are things really improving? Some Dentsu employees who spoke with The Daily Beast said that long working hours still continue after the lights go out. According to the monthly business magazine Zaiten, published earlier this week, newly implemented work time restrictions on the Dentsu workers means more overtime, for their subcontractors.
The article notes, “The subcontractors find themselves in a bind, where they are only getting paid what was promised in the beginning but having to take on the workload that Dentsu has abruptly abandoned, causing days of late nights of meetings and trouble shooting in a new territory with an empty promise they will be repaid ‘someday.’ It’s always the ones at the lowest rung who suffer.”
That’s Japan Incorporated. The buck just gets passed down to the next lower ranking worker on the totem pole.
Haruki Konno, an expert on Japan’s labor problems and author of Evil Corporations: The Monsters Eating Up Japan, has noted that the proposed caps on working hours wouldn’t be enough to solve Japan’s labor issues.
“A cap on working hours is important, but this isn’t close to being enough and 80 hours of overtime a month should be the absolute maximum—and that’s not ideal,” said Konno. “Japan really needs to pursue penalties more severely when violations occur and in order to do that there needs to be an increase in the number of labor standard inspectors. Furthermore, even if the first two measures are taken it would be impossible to police the situation if there is no proof. As of now, companies are not penalized for not having kept records but it should become a subject of concern and regulation.”
In the end, it seems that without strict enforcement of the law and substantial penalties for violating labor laws, the proposed (barely survivable) working hours cap by Abe is no more than a colorful Band-Aid on a lethal problem—a Band-Aid that barely prevents death from over-work, even in a good month.