Could a woman’s suicide bring changes to Japan's workaholic culture?

Thousands of Japanese workers die each year from health issues related to long work schedules. The prime minister is pushing to reform the system, but its deep ties to cultural norms could prove challenging. 

Yuna Shino/Reuters
A female job seeker takes part in a job hunting counseling session with advisers during a job fair held for fresh graduates in Tokyo, Japan.

The chief executive of a Japanese company says he'll step down after one of his overworked employees took her own life, triggering fresh calls for reform of the nation’s work-first culture that has been a cornerstone of Japan’s economy.

Tadashi Ishii, the CEO of advertising giant Dentsu, announced following a year-long investigation into company practices that led to an employee's death, CNN reported. He issued an apology to the woman’s family and society, noting that company policies requiring long hours could have led to her death.

“We deeply regret failing to prevent the overwork of our new recruit," Ishii said at a press conference. "I offer a sincere apology to the bereaved family and everyone in society."

Regulators determined that the woman, Matsuri Takahashi, worked excessive hours in her position at Dentsu, clocking 105 hours of overtime in the month preceding her death. She killed herself on Christmas Day in 2015.

In Japan, working excessive hours has become so normalized there’s even a word to describe death by overtime work: "karoshi." Conversely, there’s no Japanese word for the Western concept of work-life balance, and many Japanese workers take less than half of their allotted vacation days while also working 20 to 30 hours of overtime each week.

While a hard work ethic propelled the nation to become an economic powerhouse in the 1980s, studies today show that working longer hours and foregoing vacation time don’t necessarily make companies – or nations – as a whole more productive and often lead to health issues for workers, who feel compelled by cultural norms to put in days longer than 12 hours, often without receiving compensation. As in the United States, the standard workweek is 40 hours long, but Japanese workers fear isolation and poor performance reviews for failing to contribute “service,” or free, overtime.

Excessive focus on careers has also left Japanese workers with little time to start families, leading to a population decrease that has been a source of national concern. 

Many who fall into these overtime-heavy positions are predominantly young and female workers, who accept temporary positions with the promise of regular contracts lasting about six months. These vulnerable workers, lacking experience, often accept the positions, hoping that sacrificing overtime pay and benefits will lead to a stable, permanent position, but are often left with long hours and no clear path forward in the professional world.

The problem has become so extensive that the government offers compensation to families of those who die under conditions deemed related to karoshi. Between March of 2014 and 2015, Japan saw nearly 1,500 karoshi compensation claims, mostly stemming from those who held positions in the fields of healthcare, social services, construction, and shipping – all of which face worker shortages. The total for the following year, ending in March of 2016, spiked to the record high of 2,300.

"The government hosts a lot of symposiums and makes posters about the problem, but this is propaganda," Hiroshi Kawahito, secretary general of the National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi who told Reuters the number of those who die from issues related to overtime work is likely much higher than 1,500. "The real problem is reducing working hours, and the government is not doing enough."

Labor reforms are on the horizon for Japanese workers, Bloomberg reports. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing laws that would raise wages for temporary employees, who are at the highest risk of karoshi, while also consulting experts on other changes that could boost pay and quality of life for employees in the world’s third-largest economy.

Government officials have vowed to tackle the problem, setting a goal to reduce those working more than 60 hours a week from around 9 percent to just 5 percent of the population by 2020, and encouraging more people to take the average 20 vacation days they’re allotted each year. By November, half of Japanese companies had begun to consider rules that would cut down on overtime following Ms. Takahashi's death. 

Still, karoshi is embedded in the Japanese culture, and much overtime work is done voluntarily, meaning even sweeping legal reforms aren’t likely to reverse the trend. Instead, some experts say that an overhaul in the structuring of Japanese life is needed, emphasizing a shift in values from work to family, hobbies, and activities that can boost the economy as well as ridding the culture of its affinity for long hours.

“It’s impossible to get rid of karoshi alone,” Koji Morioka, a professor at Kansai University in Japan, told The Washington Post earlier this year. “We need to change the overtime culture and create the time for family and hobbies. Long working hours are the root of all evil in Japan. People are so busy they don’t even have the time to complain.”

This report contains material from Reuters.

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