Can Japan stop deaths by overwork?

A changing economy and traditional work culture are putting large numbers of Japanese employees at risk of dying from overwork, its labor ministry says.

Andy Nelson/ The Christian Science Monitor
Commuters are jammed into subway cars during the morning commute in Tokyo, Japan, on October 1, 2008.

The 2014 death of 27-year-old Filipino trainee Joey Tocnang was a case of karoshi, or death from overwork, said Japan’s labor ministry this week.  

It’s just the second time the Japanese government has officially attributed a foreign trainee’s death to overwork, a designation that makes the deceased person’s family eligible for compensation. But for Japanese workers, it’s quite common: the ministry determines hundreds of deaths to be karoshi-related every year, and labor advocates say the real number is much higher.

"The government hosts a lot of symposiums and makes posters about the problem, but this is propaganda," said Hiroshi Kawahito, secretary general of the National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi, in an April interview with Reuters. "The real problem is reducing working hours, and the government is not doing enough."

The ministry’s decision comes just weeks after it reported, in its first white paper on the subject, that as much as one-fifth of the country’s workforce could be at risk of dying from overwork. And there are other signs that Japan’s government could be getting serious about a problem that it has acknowledged since the 1980s, but done little to successfully alleviate. 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was elected on a promise to jumpstart the country’s economy, has appointed a panel to draw up reforms aimed in part at reducing overtime – one that might even include capping the number of monthly overtime hours that an employee can legally work. And as CityLab noted in September, lawmakers at the local and national levels have taken steps, including a plan in Tokyo to deploy “overtime prevention teams” at municipal offices.

About 23 percent of the 1,743 companies surveyed in the white paper said that at least some of their employees put in more than 80 hours of overtime per month, the official threshold for potentially deadly overwork, according to the Japan Times. In certain fields, such as communications, research and technology, and trucking and postal services, the percentage rises to well over a third.

In 2000, the Japanese supreme court ruled that companies were responsible for ensuring that employees did not endanger their health by overwork. But karoshi has been on the rise since then, partly for structural reasons – older workers are retiring, and with fewer younger workers to replace them, some companies are facing labor shortages – and partly for cultural ones, as The Christian Science Monitor noted in 2000:

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.

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.

Those attitudes are changing among younger employees, who are more likely to take advantage of paid time off. But the demographics of karoshi victims are also changing, from the traditional picture of men in salaried office positions to young women in temp jobs.

Migrant trainees, whose ranks have swelled as the government seeks to ease the labor shortage, are also particularly vulnerable. The labor ministry says that Mr. Tocnang, a trainee at a casting company who died just three months before he was scheduled to return home, could have been logging as much as 120 hours of overtime per month.

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