A young woman’s suicide has sparked a backlash against the country’s labor conditions. But death by overwork is so common there’s even a word for it: karoshi.
On Christmas evening, Dec. 25, 2015, newly hired Ms. Matsuri Takahashi, 24, threw herself from the top floor of the dormitory of Dentsu, Japan’s largest and most prestigious advertising firm.
Last September, the Mita Labor Standard Inspection Office announced the results of its investigation and ruled that Takahashi’s suicide was actually karoshi—death from overwork. And it was not the first time a Dentsu employee had succumbed in that way.
The incident was followed by the release of a Japanese government white paper which found that 93 people had committed suicide or attempted suicide due to overwork in 2015.
The case became the focus of a backlash against Japan’s chronically awful working conditions—conditions that allegedly have worsened under the reign of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Japanese government proposed this week a plan to put a cap on working hours—at a maximum of 100 hours of overtime in a month—but is it any more than a perfunctory gesture? Japanese press and labor experts are skeptical.
According to Japan’s labor laws, in principle only eight hours of work a day or 40 hours a week is allowed. One hundred hours of overtime adds, in effect, 12.5 workdays to that month—which means working seven days a week and then some.
Death from overwork and ceaseless overtime are closely related to the rise of what in Japan are known as burakku kigyo, loosely translated as “dark companies” or “evil corporations.” Generally the reference is to firms in which working hours are long and brutal, unpaid overtime is endemic, and harassment at work—including sexual harassment and bullying—is part of the workplace culture.
The word was once a synonym for front companies run by the yakuza, but the business world has shown that it can be just as ruthless and exploitative as your average nine-fingered gangster.
In 2013, a year after the militantly pro-business and right-wing Abe government took power, burakku kigyo was chosen as one of the top 10 buzzwords of the year.
For the last five years, a group of journalists and labor activists have selected some of Japan’s most infamous firms for “The Most Evil Corporation of The Year Award” and, not surprisingly, Dentsu won top place last year.
Mister Donut might be a contender this year. It was reported on Monday that the operator of a Mister Donut franchise was ordered by Tsu District Court to pay 46 million yen ($408,000) in indemnities to the family of a 50-year-old store manager who passed away five years ago due to overwork. He had died in his car mid-commute from fatal arrhythmia. The judge ruled, “For six months preceding his death, the man worked 112 hours of overtime a month. There was physical and mental stress causing illness that can be linked to his passing away.”
Following the ruling, the franchise owner issued a statement saying, “We will take this verdict gravely and the whole company will work to improve the labor environment.”
It is almost the same line that Dentsu has now used twice. In fact, Japanese firms always say this when caught working their employees to death.
Many people outside Japan wonder why people don’t just quit their jobs rather than working themselves to death. It’s not that simple. Stoic endurance is considered a virtue in Japan and leaving the office before one’s superiors or seniors is considered rude.
In addition, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the number of jobs that are counted as regular employment—that is, lifetime employment with benefits and a chance for promotion—have fallen from a national average of 85 percent in the ’80s to fewer than 60 percent at present.
Good jobs are hard to find and employers use that leverage to force remaining employees to put up with horrific workloads. When newly hired, they are expected to last at least two years at a job before changing workplaces; otherwise they are looked upon by society as unreliable. The result is that fresh college graduates, like Ms. Takahashi, are much more likely to endure terrible job conditions in hopes of being able to find another good job down the road.
She had been assigned to the Online Advertising division of Dentsu, a division that reportedly had been staffed by 14 people before her arrival and cut down to six during her employment. Her family said that her supervisor constantly berated her for her failure to keep up with the onerous workload.