Working to Death

by M-Gillies

Many Japanese companies have instituted "no overtime days" where lights are promptly turned off at 5:30p.m. However a new term called "cloaked overtime" has become the norm as workers either stay at the office working in the dark or bring their work home with them.

In every circle of acquaintances, we’ve all had the pleasure of meeting that one person – you know the one I’m talking about. They’re the overworked, highly stressed, frazzled and all-together an on-edge employee, colleague, friend or even family member. Despite their motivational drive of living and breathing work for whatever reason, these overworked and under-appreciated industrious workers could be facing a serious epidemic. As the adage goes, you either work to live or live to work, but for some white collar working stiffs in Japan, over-working can be an occupational hazard leading to death.

Call it workaholism at its extreme but in Japan, Karoshi, or as translated to English, death from overwork, is becoming more recognized as a major medical disorder as deaths from overwork continue to rise in Japan. With increasing numbers of Japanese employees literally working themselves to death, the government has taken steps to address the problem with campaigns encouraging employees to take time off and focus on family – however, with a heavy history of being recognized as a hard-working country, this may take time to catch on.

For over two decades, Japan has earned itself an unfortunate notoriety for its high suicide rates. In order to isolate this social phenomenon, the National Police Agency began classifying suicides by cause and motive of death. In 1980, it was documented that 919 people died of work-related problems, and saw further increases nearly two decades later, in 1999 with 1,624 reported work-related suicides.

However, it isn’t just work-related suicides that are considered Karoshi in the Japanese culture. The effects of Karoshi have more often been attributed to acute heart failure following high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, or a cerebral haemorrhage, in overworked and highly stressed Japanese salarymen.

But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, today, we see the Japanese as hardworking and industrious people, but during the Edo Era (1630-1867), the Japanese shifted much of their energies to the pursuit of leisure and cultural activities. When the Meiji Restoration of 1868 occurred, Japan saw an acceleration in its industrialization as well as its modernization. Through this, the Japanese increased production and infrastructure, building shipyards, iron smelters and spinning mills, consequently triggering the massive production of products to be sold in the western market.

Despite the determination to improve its industrial sector, it was the rise from devastation post-World War II to economic prominence that became the catalyst of Karoshi in Japan. With the formation of price controls, allocation of resources and subsidized trade with the United States, Japanese corporations began seeing a profit from the products manufactured and sold in the trade market. However, it was the meteoric industrial boom which saw mass production, automation technology and the development of a new school of though – Japanese Production Management.

Japanese Production Management developed as a philosophy in the workplace to minimize wasted hours and increase production and scrutinized the amount of time taken to complete task. Feeling the suffocating binds of pressure, the first reported case of Karoshi occurred in 1969 when a 29 year-old man died from a stroke. Since that time, several groups have formed to advocate Karoshi prevention in Japan, including the Karoshi hotline and the National Defence Coucil for Victims of Karoshi, a group which aids families of Karoshi victims financially.

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