The Overworked Nation: The Japanese Karoshi

Photo Courtesy Of bloomberg.com | High-stress work environments in Japan are leading to suicides.

Photo Courtesy Of bloomberg.com | High-stress work environments in Japan are leading to suicides.

“I wonder what will be left after overcoming such stressful days and thinking about dying,”  Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old Dentsu Inc. employee, tweeted on social media. A week later, she jumped from her company’s dormitory and lost her life. Dentsu Inc., Japan’s largest advertising and public relationship agency, gained great public attention after its employee’s suicide last December. The cause of her suicide was overwork. Records show that Matsuri Takahashi “logged more than 100 hours of overtime in the month,” according to Wall Street Journal.

It is not Dentsu’s first time in court for allegedly imposing long working hours on its employees. Dentsu took responsibility for two overworked employees’ deaths in 1991 and in 2003. These lawsuits were resolved in 2000 and 2016, respectively.

The Dentsu employees’ deaths are not outlier incidents. In fact, they are a reflection of the Japanese culture of overworking. Nearly 23 percent of Japanese corporations have some employees working over 80 hours of overtime a month, according to a government white paper on karoshi released this month. Karoshi is a term for death due to overworking. With roughly 24,000 suicides reported in Japan last year, 2,159 could be linked to workplace issues, as the Wall Street Journal suggests.

Let’s look at this issue within an international context. Among the 2014 list of countries where workers logged 49 or more hours a week, Japan was a noticeable country, as its percentage reached 30 (the International Labor Organization), compared to U.S.’s 21.8 percent and UK’s 18.1 percent.

Despite being a country with long working hours, Japan is one of the least productive economies among the 35 member countries in the OECD, according to The Economist. Compared to U.S.’s $62 dollars of GDP per hour, Japan generates only $39 dollars. Various factors contribute to its lack of productivity, including the lack of technological innovation and inefficient resource management. Low productivity requires companies and employees to work longer hours to catch up with other developed countries, forming a stressful culture of overworking that brings harm to the nation and its people.

Mainstream Japan has recognized the severity of the problem. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says that he aims to introduce reforms to the Japanese work style in next year. Yuriko Koike, the new governor of Tokyo, has prohibited workers from staying in their office later than 8 pm, according to The Economists.

Although Japan is opposing the culturally valued long hours of work, the country has moved toward ammending current problems in reforming the labor market.

While lamenting the serious situation in Japan, we should also be aware that a similar situation may occur in other countries. For instance, the U.S. may have the tendency to uphold the “overworked culture.” The U.S. ranks 17th out of 38 countries in terms of average work hours each year, according to US News.  The booming of the high-income industries, such as the financial sector, pressures Americans to work longer hours.

As “The Tale of Two Cities” narrates in its opening, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” While this is the time that brings us abundant opportunity, this is also the time that shackles us through the pursuit of worldly wealth. People may need to calm down a little bit and send more time reflecting on the thing that can bring true happiness to them.

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