Japan Has a Word for Working Yourself To Death

The country’s overwork problem won’t go away on its own.

Karoshi, the Japanese term for death by overwork, is a serious issue among the country’s workforce. But the BBC reports that as tragedies — like the suicide of a young worker at advertising agency Dentsu in 2015, which prompted the company’s chief executive to step down — continue to make headlines, critics are calling on the government to take more radical measures to shift the entire work culture of Japan, not just address individual cases.

Karoshi isn’t a new phenomenon, as BBC’s Edwin Lane writes. Today’s young workers face a dangerous paradox that puts them at increased risk of overwork though: Without the same job security that existed in the 1960s and 70s (when karoshi was first discussed as a problem), “young workers think they don’t have any other choice,” Makoto Iwahashi told BBC. Iwahashi, who works for an organization that runs a helpline for young Japanese workers, added “if you don’t quit you have to work 100 hours. If you quit you just can’t live.”

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Lane cites the tragic story of Michiyo Nishigaki, whose 27-year-old son Naoya overdosed on medication after working nonstop. She told BBC her son “usually worked until the last train, but if he missed it he slept at his desk,” adding that “in the worst case he had to work overnight through to 10pm the next evening, working 37 hours in total.”

Overtime in Japan goes beyond staying late to shoot off a few emails: Almost 25 percent of Japanese companies have “employees working more than 80 hours overtime a month, often unpaid,” Lane writes. Working more than 80 hours of overtime a month is “regarded as the threshold above which you have an increased chance of dying,” BBC reports.

According to the Washington Post, 22 percent of workers in Japan log more than 50 hours a week. That’s more than any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development aside from Turkey, Mexico and Korea. For comparison, 12 percent of Americans work long hours (which the OECD defines as more than 50 hours a week) while in the Netherlands, less than 0.5 percent of employees work long hours, according to the OECD Better Life Index.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

The government has introduced measures aimed at fixing the problem, including ‘Premium Fridays,’ where companies are encouraged to let employees out at 3 p.m. one Friday a month. In some cases, like the government offices in downtown Tokyo, employers have been turning the lights off at 7 p.m. in hopes of quite literally reminding everyone when it’s time to head home.

But while turning out the lights may encourage people to leave the office at a reasonable time, it might not do much to shift a “decades-old work culture where it’s frowned upon to leave before your colleagues or boss,” Lane writes. Manager Hitoshi Uni put this in perspective: “It’s not just about cutting working hours. We want people to be more efficient and productive, so that everyone can protect and enjoy their spare time. We want to change the work environment in total.”

Read more on BBC.