Tokyo | International

Working overtime to death in Japan

In Japan, one of the least crime-prone countries, the biggest killers include some of the nation’s most established corporations. It’s not guns or machetes that are the fatal weapons, but the strain of working too much.

‘Karoshi’, a Japanese word that refers to the phenomenon of death by overwork, was coined as far back as the 1970s, and it’s still dominating the national headlines. The case in the current spotlight is the December 2015 suicide by Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old employee of Dentsu, one of Japan’s most established advertising firms.

Takahashi had been working in the Digital Accounts division of Dentsu for about eight months when she jumped off the top floor of a company dormitory, having allegedly survived on about 10 hours of sleep a week, for several weeks. According to her family’s lawyers, Takahashi’s overtime for the period between October 9 and November 7, 2015, amounted to 105 hours. Japan’s statutory working hours are 8 hours a day for a maximum of 40 hours a week.


Late last year, a government white paper revealed that 93 people had committed or attempted suicide due to overwork in 2015. A further 96 deaths from brain and cardiac illnesses were also designated karoshi-related that year. Since the Takahashi suicide, the Shinzo Abe government is slowly moving to respond. In conjunction with a business federation, the government will launch a campaign dubbed ‘Premium Friday’ from February 24. This is aimed at encouraging companies to allow employees an early finish on the last Friday of every month.

Moreover, formal discussions on draft legislation that would limit overtime to an average of 60 hours a month over the course of the calendar year are also under way in the Japanese Parliament. However, companies would still be allowed to authorise up to 100 hours of overtime during a particularly busy time. Even with this caveat, the draft is facing opposition from corporations that are used to uncomplaining employees working round the clock. An almost sacred reverence for hard work is built into the company culture in Japan. For employees, stoic endurance is considered a virtue, while leaving the office before one’s superiors is frowned upon. When someone does go home early, he/she takes their leave with the phrase, “osaki ni shitsureishimasu,” which translates as “apologies for leaving before you”.

Less number of jobs

Given Japan’s stagnant economy, finding employment is harder than ever. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the number of jobs that offer what was once the standard package of lifetime employment with benefits and a chance for promotion have fallen from a national average of 85% in the 1980s to fewer than 60% at present.

Takahashi’s death and the debates it has sparked have led to some changes. Dentsu has implemented an office lights-out policy from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., so that employees go home instead of burning the midnight oil. Food manufacturer Ajinomoto plans to shorten its standard daily working hours to seven hours by 2020. Some companies have begun to encourage employees to take a power nap at their desks. However, these changes pale before the magnitude of the problem.

Overwork does not make employees more productive, only more stressed out. According to OECD data, Japan’s GDP per hour worked was $40.10, well behind countries where average hours worked are less, like Norway ($86.6) or the U.S. ($64.10). Counter-intuitively, Japan might need its citizens to work less, if the economy is to grow more.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 3:30:08 PM |

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