Definitions

shi`itic

Karōshi

, which can be translated quite literally from Japanese as "death from overwork", is occupational sudden death. Although this category has a significant count, Japan is one of the few countries that reports it in the statistics as a separate category. The major medical causes of karōshi deaths are heart attack and stroke due to stress.

The first case of karōshi was reported in 1969 with the death from a stroke of a 29-year-old male worker in the shipping department of Japan's largest newspaper company. It was not until the latter 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 twelve or more hours a day, six or seven days a week, year after year, without suffering physically as well as mentally. A recent measurement found that a Japanese worker has approximately two hours overtime a day on average. In almost all cases, the overtime is unpaid.

Cultural causes

Tatsuo Inoue of Tokyo University has argued that strong communitarianism in the workplace leads to karoshi.

Media attention

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

Effects on society

Many will be prepared to work unpaid overtime to an extreme extent particularly as their young co-workers will often quit when a job is too strenuous. In some cases it has been proven that firms were aware of the poor health of an employee. Some children will regularly pick their parents up from work to prevent them from working themselves to death.

Meanwhile, death-by-overwork lawsuits have been on the rise in Japan, with the deceased person's relatives demanding compensation payments. However, before compensation can be awarded, the labour inspection office must acknowledge that the death was work-related. As this may take many years in detailed and time-consuming judicial hearings, many do not demand payment.

Government reaction

Japanese courts have even awarded damages to relatives in cases of work overload induced stress or depression ending with the suicide of the employee when the Labour Standards Inspection Office rejected the plea for compensation The linked article also mentions the practice of "voluntary" undocumented unpaid overtime (サービス残業 sābisu zangyō) as leading to karōshi incidents.

The Japanese Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour published relevant statistics in 2007: 147 workers died, many from strokes or heart attacks, and about 208 more fell severely ill from overwork in the year to March, the highest figure on record and 7.6 percent up from the previous year. Another 819 workers contended they became mentally ill due to overwork, with 205 cases given compensation, according to the ministry data released on Wednesday. Mentally troubled workers killed themselves or attempted to do so in 176 cases. (*)

The Japanese government is now beginning to recognise the extent of responsibility that companies bear in overworking employees. On 29 April 2008, a company was ordered to pay 200 million yen to a man overworked into a coma.

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Notes

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