Japan asks if it works too hard

As its ailing prime minister is replaced, Japan reflects on the national work ethic.

Japan's parliament elected a new prime minister yesterday, appointing Liberal Democratic Party veteran Yoshiro Mori to a grueling job of 18-hour days broken down into a minute-by-minute schedule.

Speaking to reporters outside his home yesterday morning, the burly rugby aficionado said it occurred to him while breakfasting with his grandchild that he probably wouldn't be able to repeat the experience anytime soon.

The sudden illness of Mr. Mori's predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, has raised an inevitable question in this nation of hard workers: Was the prime minister overdoing it?

The Japanese are proud of their perseverance, but in recent decades bereaved families and their lawyers have forced the government to acknowledge that too much time on the job can result in karoshi: death from overwork.

Complaining of work-related fatigue, Mr. Obuchi entered a Tokyo hospital on Sunday, where he subsequently suffered a stroke and entered a coma. A political aide said yesterday that movements were detected in one of Obuchi's hands, but the government's top spokesman said the hospital reported no change.

"He worked too hard," says Ichita Yamamoto, a member of the upper house of parliament who represents the same region of the country as Obuchi. "We have to think about a new system. More of the prime minister's work should be borne by others, such as the foreign minister and the chief Cabinet secretary."

Tomiichi Murayama, who was Japan's premier from mid-1994 to early 1996, told a television interviewer this week that he was never alone during his tenure, except in the bathroom. "I slept about four to five hours a day."

Obuchi's desire to be well-liked, a quality that endears him to many Japanese, may have kept him especially busy. He tried to accommodate his petitioners, rather than turn people away, and was considered more accessible and energetic than some of his predecessors.

Obuchi entered office amid singularly low expectations - one US analyst famously likened him to "cold pizza" - which may have made him determined to show up his critics.

"He was constantly working," says Akitaka Saiki, who stepped down yesterday as Obuchi's deputy spokesman. "The only symptom" his staff could see of his illness, he adds, was that Obuchi "was constantly exhausted from overwork."

Obuchi used to rise at 6 a.m. to a day filled with meetings, official functions, and working meals. He went to bed at 11 p.m. or midnight, but often awoke in the middle of the night to read documents, Saiki says.

Sundays were routinely taken up with official duties, and Saiki says the former prime minister took no more than three days' holiday during his 20 months in office. "We all reminded him to take more time off," he says.

The term karoshi was coined in the early 1980s, when the Japanese discovered that their national work ethic was taking an unreasonable toll. Courts and the government began to agree that companies could indeed work their employees to death.

In contrast to the West, where the work habits of leaders and top executives are considered hazardous to their health, in Japan karoshi is mainly applied to lower-level employees who are compelled to work too hard.

With the stagnation of Japan's economy, claims of karoshi have slowed. Recently the government has ruled that 20 to 60 deaths a year are attributable to karoshi and deserve compensation. But lawyer Hiroshi Kawahito says his research suggests that 10,000 or more Japanese a year die because of the stresses of the workplace.

Just last month, Japan's supreme court broadened the notion of karoshi by ruling that a company was responsible for an employee's suicide. Most karoshi-related deaths involve strokes and heart attacks.

Some experts blame karoshi on manufacturing companies' attempts to eliminate "waste time" from the days of their assembly-line workers. Other observers have noted that Japan's group-oriented society makes it hard for individuals to strike out on their own by leaving work on time if everyone else is working late.

The common expression a worker would use in leaving an office ahead of her co-workers translates to: "I'm sorry to be leaving before you." At crunch times in companies and bureaucracies, sleeping at the workplace is routine.

But while Obuchi may have been determined to work without ceasing, it seems that many younger Japanese are not. "Young company employees take all their paid holidays these days," says Tadashi Hanami, director-general for research at the government-backed Japan Institute of Labor, "even though the older generation is not happy about it."

Younger people, he adds, "want to enjoy their lives rather than being tied up in corporations."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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