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Karōshi (過労死?), which can be translated literally as "death from overwork" in Japanese, is occupational sudden death. The major medical causes of karōshi deaths are heart attack and stroke due to stress and a starvation diet.


The first case of karōshi was reported in 1969 with the stroke-related death of a 29-year-old male worker in the shipping department of Japan's largest newspaper company.[1] It was not until the later part of the 1980s, during the Bubble Economy, however, when several high-ranking business executives who were still in their prime years suddenly died without any previous sign of illness, that the media began picking up on what appeared to be a new phenomenon. This new phenomenon was quickly labeled "karōshi" and was immediately seen as a new and serious menace for people in the work force. In 1987, as public concern increased, the Japanese Ministry of Labour began to publish statistics on karōshi.

Japan's rise from the devastation of World War II to economic prominence in the post-war decades has been regarded as the trigger for what has been called a new epidemic. It was recognized that employees cannot work for 12 or more hours a day, 6–7 days a week, year after year, without suffering physically as well as mentally. It is common for the overtime to go unpaid.[2][3]
In an International Labour Organization article about karōshi,[4] the following four typical cases of karōshi were mentioned:

  1. Mr. A worked at a major snack food processing company for as long as 110 hours a week (not a month) and died from a heart attack at the age of 34. His death was recognized as work-related by the Labour Standards Office.
  2. Mr. B, a bus driver, whose death was also recognized as work-related, worked more than 3,000 hours a year. He did not have a day off in the 15 years before he had a stroke at the age of 37.
  3. Mr. C worked in a large printing company in Tokyo for 4,320 hours a year including night work and died from a stroke at the age of 58. His widow received workers’ compensation 14 years after her husband’s death.
  4. Ms. D, a 22-year-old nurse, died from a heart attack after 34 hours of continuous duty five times a month.

As well as physical pressure, mental stress from the workplace can cause karōshi. People who commit suicide due to mental stress are called “karōjisatsu (過労自殺).” The ILO also lists some causes of overwork or occupational stress that include the following:

  1. All-night, late-night or holiday work, both long and excessive hours. During the long-term economic recession after the collapse of the bubble economy in the 1980s and 1990s, many companies reduced the number of employees. The total amount of work, however, did not decrease, forcing each employee to work harder.
  2. Stress accumulated due to frustration at not being able to achieve the goals set by the company. Even in economic recession, companies tended to demand excessive sales efforts from their employees and require them to achieve better results. This increased the psychological burden placed on the employees at work.
  3. Forced resignation, dismissal, and bullying. For example, employees who worked for a company for many years and saw themselves as loyal to the company were suddenly asked to resign because of the need for staff cutbacks.
  4. Suffering of middle management. They were often in a position to lay off workers and torn between implementing a corporate restructuring policy and protecting their staff.

Effects on society

Many will be prepared to work unpaid overtime to an extreme extent particularly since their younger co-workers will often quit when a job is too strenuous. In some cases, it has been proven[citation needed] that firms were aware of the poor health of an employee.

The deceased person's relatives demand compensation payments when such deaths occur. However, before compensation can be awarded, the labour inspection office must acknowledge that the death was work-related. Since this may take many years in detailed and time-consuming judicial hearings, many do not demand payment.

There is a new movement of Japanese workers, as a result of Karoshi. Young Japanese are choosing part-time work over their elder counterparts who work over-time. This is a new style of career choice for the young Japanese people who want to try out different jobs in order to figure out their own potential. They are called “freeters”. A special kind of employment defined by Atsuko Kanai, as those who are currently employed and referred to as, “part-time workers or arbeit (temporary workers), who are currently employed but wish to be employed as part time workers, or who are currently not in the labor force and neither doing housework nor attending school but wish to be employed as part-time workers.” (Karoshi (Work to Death) in Japan, Kanai, 2008) “Freeters” are not in school but they are ages 15–34 and if women, are unmarried. The movement of the “freeters” has its problems, however. Most “freeters” are failing to launch a successful career based on a few reasons. Due to their part-time work, their annual income is around 1 million yen or around $8,500 USD. Also, the economic growth in Japan is slow, making it difficult for “freeters” to switch to regular employment. Another problem is “freeters” are given menial tasks, which makes it almost impossible to gain any real experience, which is necessary when converting to full-time employment. (Kanai, 2003) It may seem as if being a “freeter” is the answer to the over worked, near Karoshi individual suffering from long work hours, however, being a non-regular employee or “freeter” who are supposedly wanting to only work part-time, are finding themselves working 60 hours a week or more. Since non-regular employees wages are so low, it is necessary for them to work longer hours, negating the desire to be a “freeter”. “Freeters” are now facing the risk of karoshi just as regular workers due to their long hours.

There are other undesirable results, other than karoshi, that arise from working long hours. A psychological trait, known as workaholism has been shown to lead one to work long hours. (Spence & Robbins, 1992) There are three defining factors of workaholism, they are as follows: High work involvement, being driven to or compelled to work by inner pressures, and thirdly, low enjoyment of work. (Kanai, 1996). The latter suggests a contradiction. However, Kanai, argued that workaholism is not a psychological trait but rather results from adaptation to that work demand overload. Individuals that overload on work is not because they are workaholics but that the demand of the workload brings out psychologically and behavioral characteristics similar to those with workaholism. Management welcomes hard work and rewards with promotions. Morioka (2005), suggests that in order to eliminate the harmful effects of workaholism, the workplace should be responsible for managing workload issues.

Overworking also has a negative effect on the family. When men become very busy with their job, they think less about their family. There is high family depression as a result. As the men focus on their jobs, they tend to develop negative feelings towards family. They take on less role in family life as they continue to overwork. The men sees the family as something that is taking away from his work, which creates a resentment toward the family. As a result, avoiding family time increases, even though it is their family that inspires them to work hard in the first place. (Kanai, 2002) The findings from Kanai, suggest that excessive working hours are harmful to family life in that not only are they spending less time with their families but they develop hostility toward the family.

Corporate response

A number of companies have been making an effort to find a better work-life balance for their employees. Toyota, for example, now generally limits overtime to 360 hours a year (an average of 30 hours monthly), and, at some offices, issues public address announcements every hour after 7 p.m. pointing out the importance of rest and urging workers to go home. Nissan offers telecommuting for office workers to make it easier to care for children or elderly parents.[3] Dozens of large corporations have also implemented "no overtime days", which require employees to leave the office promptly at 5:30 p.m. However, since their workload is too high, few workers can actually take advantage of this, and opt to stay in the office with the lights off or to simply take their work home, "cloaked overtime" called "furoshiki" (風呂敷) after the Japanese traditional wrapping cloth.[citation needed]

In 2007, Mitsubishi UFJ Trust & Banking, a division of Japan's largest banking group, started to allow employees to go home up to 3 hours early to care for children or elderly relatives. As of January 5, 2009, just 34 of the company's 7,000 employees had signed up for the plan.[3]

The problem with unpaid overtime in companies is that the overtime is simply not recorded in many cases. The amount of overtime is regulated by labor regulations, so, in order to not contradict labor regulations, workers are told not to record the overtime, since it would be considered an illegal action from the side of the company. The workers themselves often rationalize this by attributing the overwork to lacking skills from their side, describing a lack of familiarity with the work, "not being trained enough" as the cause for not being able to finish in a more timely manner. In general, overtime is something that is accepted as part of work, and protest against it is rare, due to concern for the reaction of colleagues, superiors and even family and friends. "Seken" (世間), or the "public gaze" (others' opinions about one's behavior) is a strong cultural factor in this. It is safe to assume that most statistics of overtime in Japanese companies are not accurate, since overtime is not recorded in many occasions. It is not uncommon for many Japanese employees to work late hours until 2-3am, and being expected to be in the office again at 9am. In some cases (especially in subsidiaries of big listed companies that have to cope with the pressure of parent companies, who generate margins through exploitation of daughter companies) employees have been reported to have worked 300 hours of overtime in a single month. These statistics are in almost all cases not official, and most employees would always refrain from making such statements to authorities or the press, nor would they agree to be named.

Media attention

The French-German TV channel Arte showed a documentary called "Alt in Japan" (Old in Japan) on 6 November 2006 dealing with older workers in Japan. In 2008, karōshi again made headlines: a death back in 2006 of a key Toyota engineer who averaged over 80 hours overtime each month was ruled the result of overwork. His family was awarded benefits after his case was reviewed.[5]

Taiwanese media have reported a case of karōshi.[6] An engineer had worked for Nanya Technology for 3 years from 2006 to 2009. It was found that he died in front of his computer which was surrounded by company documents. The prosecution found that the engineer had died of cardiogenic shock. The engineer’s parents said that he had usually worked for 16–19 hours a day.

See also


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