Japanese Literally Work Themselves to Death

'Karoshi' demises are often from suicide, heart attack, or stroke
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 1, 2016 9:03 AM CDT
Japanese Literally Work Themselves to Death
Construction workers are often plagued by the karoshi problem.   (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Work-life balance is the American worker's goal, but for Japanese employees, work and life may be one and the same. The Washington Post takes a look at Japan's toil-til-you-drop culture, where 12-hour days are typical and there's even a word ("karoshi") that means "death by overwork." It's not a metaphor, either: Stats from Japan's labor ministry show nearly 200 karoshi deaths—including suicides, heart attacks, and strokes, the latter two often symptoms of stress and lack of sleep, the Post notes—in 2015, though some say they may have numbered in the thousands. Victims tend to be in their 20s and male, though more women are succumbing to the trend: The Labor Ministry says work-related suicides among women rose 39% over the last four years, per the International Business Times; the health care, social services, shipping, and construction industries see the most cases. "It's ... not rare in Japan for people in their early 30s to have heart attacks," says Hiroshi Kawahito, a victims' advocacy group lawyer who himself has "cut back" to 60 hours a week at age 66.

It's an issue with financial repercussions for the government, which offers compensation to families of those officially deemed karoshi victims; there was a record high of 2,310 karoshi claims in the year ending in March, per government calculations (though only about one-third of claims are usually accepted). The problem is complicated by the fact that workers in Japan tend to stick with one company for the long haul, making it hard to resist a company's overworked culture, and the country's aging population means fewer people in the workforce and greater workloads for those who keep punching a time clock. The government has passed legislation to cut working hours (Kawahito claims those efforts are mostly propaganda, per Reuters) and encourages vacation time. But one Kansai University professor says destroying karoshi will take more than a few simple rule changes. "Long working hours are the root of all evil in Japan," he notes. "People are so busy they don't even have the time to complain." (Long workdays could lead to a risky habit.)

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