‘Death by overwork’ exposes dangers of overtime in Japan

Graduate trainee’s suicide came after telling parents she was surviving on ten hours of sleep per week

Japanese workers clock up on average more than 2,000 working hours per year. Photograph: iStock

Japanese workers clock up on average more than 2,000 working hours per year. Photograph: iStock


For a nation struggling to make sense of deflation, duty and the shock of a graduate trainee being worked to death at one of Japan’s most prestigious companies, “Premium Friday” seems to provide a glimmer of hope.

Following revelations of ruinously excessive overtime demands at Japan’s largest advertising agency, Dentsu, the government wants bosses to order their overworked and under-slept employees home at 3pm on the last Friday of every month.

Proponents of the idea, which include the powerful Keidanren business lobby, argue that workers could use the time for recuperative snoozing or enjoy more leisure activities and rev the economy out of deflation.

It may not, say many labour experts, be quite that simple.

In Japan, quality time has long been measured in minutes. But pressure is piling on Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, now entering his fifth year at the helm of the “Abenomics” economic revitalisation programme. Legal claims of death by overwork have risen to a record during his reign, and many see labour reform as badly overdue.

Mr Abe is discovering - as leaders before him have - that any attempt to reform Japan’s long-hour culture stumbles. Attitudes have adapted from postwar nation rebuilding to the 1980s desire for dominance, through to the protect-my-job-at-all-cost workaholism of the past two deflationary decades. What has remained constant is punishing overwork.

“There is a structural and deep-rooted problem with the working practice not just of Dentsu but other companies,” says Hiroshi Kawahito, a lawyer advising the family of Matsuri Takahashi, a Dentsu graduate trainee whose suicide has roused the Japanese public from a traditional indifference towards stories of punishing overwork.

The true extent of overtime worked in Japan, adds Waseda University labour law professor Makoto Ishida, is “impossible to calculate but undoubtedly very very huge”.


Last month, when Japan’s labour ministry referred Dentsu and one of its executives to prosecutors over Ms Takahashi’s death, the company said in a statement: “We take the incident seriously. We offer our apology to those concerned for causing such a situation.”

Ms Takahashi’s death came to light late last year after her parents went public with the conclusion of the local labour standards bureau that their daughter had been a victim of karoshi - the legally recognised “death by overwork” syndrome from which, officially, at least 200 Japanese die every year, and which labour groups believe silently claims many more.

Media reports on the contents of deleted text messages Ms Takahashi sent to her mother while she was struggling to survive on just 10 hours of sleep a week bit the public mood in Japan particularly hard.

Work overload has become a global problem, as access to technology has blurred the definition of working hours.

From January 1st, French organisations with more than 50 workers have been obliged to start negotiations with staff to define the hours they can ignore their smartphones. Many banks have sought to curb long hours for junior bankers in the wake of the death of a Bank of America intern in London in 2013, which was a result of a seizure possibly caused by work overload, a coroner’s inquest found.

Japanese work culture is, however, infused with an idea that exhaustion is more virtuous than excellence - a position that has suited companies just fine. Karoshi is nothing new. The term was first recognised in Japan decades ago, and annual claims have been steadily rising to a record 1,456 in 2015. Clocking up an average of just over 2,000 working hours a year, the Japanese are one of the world’s most overworked nations.

Sleeping less

A recent health ministry report found Japanese sleeping even less in 2015 than they did in the pressurised 1980s. Corporate Japan’s long-term shift to employing more part-time workers has served to increase the workloads on full-time staff.

Even the language of the workplace gives the game away: as each worker leaves (no matter how late), he or she apologises to those left behind (osakini shitsureishimasu) for doing so. The remainers duly thank the departee for “tiring yourself out”.

Reform attempts are under way. There is an existing policy to name and shame companies that force more than 100 hours of overtime per month on employees. The threshold will be lowered to 80 hours. Failing bosses will have to explain themselves to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

But the Premium Friday campaign may prove to be a cosmetic publicity drive unless Japanese companies change the culture.

In a deliberately high-visibility strategy last October, Dentsu’s Tokyo headquarters and regional offices were raided by labour office inspectors. This resulted in the company saying it would turn its office lights off at 10pm each evening. Dentsu then lowered the maximum number of overtime hours it would officially allow each employee to work. But according to one current employee: “One of the first things you learn when you arrive is how to clock out with your pass card then duck back under the entry gates so you can work unofficial overtime without officially being in the building.”

Dentsu’s patrician president, Tadashi Ishii, resigned in December over what he called the company’s failure to “achieve dramatic reform of overwork”.

The company is far from alone. Lawyers tell of employers routinely assuming staff will provide what is euphemistically known as “service time” - effectively obligatory, illegally-worked hours of unpaid overtime to maintain good relationships with customers.

Onerous expectations

Workers are increasingly seeing karoshi and onerous overtime expectations with other failures of company management and unions to effect positive social change, says Prof Ishida.

The Dentsu incident has intensified pressure on Mr Abe, adds Prof Ishida, who suggests the prime minister may now prioritise amending article 36 of the Labour Standards Act that allows a company and its employees to agree to unlimited overtime. Other reforms proposed by academics include encouraging companies to penalise middle managers who fail to reduce overtime hours.

However, Keio University labour law professor Yoshio Higuchi warns the end of karoshi “will require a simultaneous huge shift in Japanese society itself”.

- (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)