Karoshi - a Fatal Export from Japan

By Lamont-Brown, Raymond | Contemporary Review, October 1993 | Go to article overview

Karoshi - a Fatal Export from Japan


Lamont-Brown, Raymond, Contemporary Review


TOSHITSUGU Yagi emerged as a statistic on Japan's increasing early mortality chart. Now he has posthumously become an eiyu (hero) of a video citing hazards in Japanese office life today. Yagi was a sarariman (Japanese white collar worker) sometimes working through the night; he even stayed at a hotel near his work, too tired to make the journey home. Yagi had been delighted to receive promotion for his diligence, but hard work brought on physical collapse; he died of a heart attack, at aged 43.

Yagi suffered from what the Japanese are now calling karoshi--'death from overwork'. Karoshi usually refers to acute heart failure following high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, or a cerebral haemorrhage. Today lawyers estimate that some 10,000 Japanese per year are dying from it. This is the same number as are killed by traffic accidents.

It has become a cliche now to refer to Japanese as workaholics. Yet, it was not always so. During the Edo Era (1603-1867) the Japanese gave over much time to leisure and cultural pursuits and were prone to take long vacations. Those could afford it made treks around the country to emulate the great poet Matsuo Basho who produced the classic Oku no hoso-michi ('Narrow Road to the deep North') in 1692.

Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the government encouraged the nation to work hard to catch up with the progress made by western nations, since Japan was only just emerging from a medical zenophobic sleep that had lasted from the early seventeenth century. The national unity policy promoted during the American Occupation and just after further encouraged the Japanese to become workaholics.

Immediately before World War II the average Japanese could expect to work around 2,900-3,000 hours per year. Today that figure has fallen to around 2,100 hours and a forty hour work week was declared an official objective. Nevertheless world recession and changes in Japan's industrial structure and the traditional life-long employment system has produced stress and psychological factors that have been exacerbated the tendency towards overwork. The eroding of the influence of the paternalistic company which would look after you from the cradle to the grave has produced negative psychological symptoms to compensate for the old 'dependency expectations'.

Karoshi is one of these new 'symptoms' and usually seems to occur in workplaces which exhibit two factors. Employees are under immediate threat if their work demands strenuous mental effort and working to deadlines. Stress too, is built up when employees work independently, and to their own initiative, without any assistance from colleagues. The Japanese mind is not geared to independence, especially in a land wherein many employees still take their holidays in work-mate groups.

The bereaved families of karoshi victims have come across a major obstacle to winning recognition of the cause of their loved one's death. Their right to compensation too, is difficult to establish. Most victims' families don't bother to make a claim. Japan's snail-pace justice system deters claimants. During 1992, however, some 600 people filed claims against employers and up to now only 30 claims have been examined.

Mitsue Yagi, the widow of Yagi, was told by the Japan's Ministry of Labour, that her husband did not die from overwork. They said that he had worked hard every day for years and so was used to the lifestyle. The Ministry ruled that a victim of Karoshi has to have been working double the normal working hours just one week previous to death for compensation to be granted.

Neither was Yagi's death covered by his insurance policy; the company's assessment was that he had only been working for three of four hours overtime a day in the week before he died. …

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