- ANN News/YouTube
- Miwa Sado, 31, died after working more than 150 hours in overtime in a month. Her death has been classified as “karoshi” – death by overwork. Her parents recently spoke out in the hope of preventing more deaths. Experts attribute karoshi to Japan’s toxic work culture and rigid labour market. The government is trying to halt the trend, but has yet to get very far.
On July 25, 2013, Miwa Sado was found dead in her Tokyo apartment, clutching her mobile phone.
Sado, a reporter for Japan’s national broadcaster NHK, had died from congestive heart failure – meaning her heart had grown so weak it couldn’t pump enough blood round her body. She was 31.
NHK revealed Sado’s death for the first time earlier this month, noting that the journalist’s parents initially wanted to keep the death private.
The Sado parents changed their mind earlier this summer, and recently opened up about their daughter’s death in a bid to warn others about the dangers of overwork, a phenomenon behind hundreds of deaths a year in Japan alone.
According to labour officials in Tokyo, Sado had clocked up 159 hours and 37 minutes of overtime at work in the month until her death, and 146 hours and 57 minutes in the month before that, Japan’s Asahi newspaper reported.
But Sado’s father, who trawled through the journalist’s mobile phone and work computer, told a press conference earlier this month that her overwork hours actually came up to 209 hours in the month up to her death. That’s almost seven hours of overtime a day, including weekends.
The labour office told Asahi: “[Sado] was under circumstances that she could not secure enough days off due to responsibilities that required her to stay up very late. It can be inferred that she was in a state of accumulated fatigue and chronic sleep deprivation.”
“Death from overwork”
- Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com
Sado’s death was officially designated as “karoshi,” a Japanese term that literally means “death from overwork.”
It’s by no means a new phenomenon – the first karoshi case was recorded in 1969, and the number of such victims haven’t seemed to go down. In 2015, 189 deaths were listed as karoshi, the Washington Post reported, though analysts think the real toll is higher.
While Japanese politicians have passed legislation meant to prevent further deaths, experts have told Business Insider that the country’s toxic work culture is making the problem impossible to combat.
Japanese law says employees are only supposed to work 40 hours a week. Government guidelines say that workers should only put in 45 hours of overtime per month on top of that, but the recommendation is non-binding.
But these directives seem to go ignored, with many workers feeling obliged to work overtime to prove their worth.
“Many companies [and] bosses evaluate performance by face-time,” Yoko Ishikura, professor emeritus at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University, told Business Insider. “They do not know how to evaluate performance other than the time.
“We even have survey results [showing] that those who are productive (i.e. finish work efficiently) are not evaluated. Some even perceive those who are around long hours to be good or competent.”
Jeff Kingston, an Asian studies professor at Temple University’s Tokyo campus, also told BI: “There is a samurai work culture in which employees are expected to be totally dedicated and willing to sacrifice their time and health for their employers.
“There was [previously] a sense that firms were paternalistic and would take care of their employees, but this perception had changed dramatically over the past 25 years, and values that once supported this sanctioned exploitation have shifted in favour of families and private time.”
Some workers don’t even log overtime hours for fear of getting bad evaluations – meaning they work for free, the Washington Post said.
“Physically and mentally shattered”
- Kyodo via Reuters
Sado’s death is by no means an isolated one.
The first karoshi case was recorded in 1969, when an unnamed 29-year-old employee at a Japanese newspaper company died of a stroke, according to a 1997 International Journal of Health Services paper. The victim reportedly experienced ill health and an increased workload before his death.
In the 1980s, most karoshi victims were middle-aged men in white-collar jobs, Hiroshi Kawahito, a lawyer and secretary-general of the National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi, told Reuters. Now, almost one in five karoshi victims is female women, he said.
Work-related suicides among females and employees under 29 have also risen over the past few years, according to Reuters.
On Christmas Day 2015, 24-year-old ad agency employee Matsuri Takahashi jumped to her death from her dormitory after working around 100 hours of overtime the month before. Weeks before her death, she posted on social media, according to the Guardian, to say: “I’m physically and mentally shattered” and “I want to die.”
On October 11, Tokyo labour officials also determined that a 23-year-old construction worker’s suicide was karoshi, the Associated Press reported. The unnamed man’s body was found in the central Japan mountains in April, alongside a note that said he was “physically and mentally pushed to the limit.”
- Toru Hanai/Reuters
Professor Kingston said: “Excessive working hours are nothing new in Japan, and it’s only because survivor families have lobbied the government to grant recognition of such deaths that we are now seeing so many cases reported in the media and firms getting sued for compensation.
“In the past such problems were swept under the national tatami mat but as norms have become globalized, and Japan’s excessive work culture has come under intensified scrutiny, such practices are no longer acceptable.”
Not all workers who die after exhibiting signs of faltering health and overwork are classified as karoshi victims.
Government officials investigate the particulars of a case, and then decide whether or not it counts.
Once a death has been classed as karoshi, the worker’s family can claim government compensation.
According to a Japanese government survey published last October, more than one in five of the companies that responded had employees work more than 80 hours of overtime a month.
That’s about four hours of overtime a day, excluding weekends. The paper also claimed that 2,159 people committed suicide in 2015 due to work issues.
Japan’s labour market problems
- Issei Kato/Reuters
Japan’s rigid labour market likely plays a role in its overwork culture. Despite being the world’s third-largest economy, the country has a low productivity rate, a growing labour market shortage, and a shrinking population.
There are about one and a half job vacancies per applicant in Japan, the government reported in September – the highest for more than 40 years. People aged 65 or above make up 25% of the country’s population, the country’s statistics bureau calculated this year, and the overall population is also expected to decrease by a third by the middle of the century.
Despite this, the working world in Japan remains inflexible.
“Companies still follow a one-shot recruiting process and promotion is quite fixed and rigid,” Ishikura said. “Once you leave a company, it becomes difficult to find another job.”
“Fundamental change is needed”
- Toru Hanai/Reuters
After Sado’s death, NHK introduced various workplace reforms that included requiring employees to get managers’ permission to work after 10 p.m. or over holidays, Asahi reported.
Other offices have devised creative ways to prevent employees from overworking, albeit with limited success.
Construction company Mitsui Home’s headquarters blasts the “Rocky” theme tune at 6 p.m. every day to encourage employees to leave, Reuters reported.
In February, the Japanese government also introduced “Premium Friday,” a campaign encouraging firms to let workers leave a few hours early on the last Friday of each month so they can go shopping or eating – activities that will boost the economy, basically.
But less than a year after its launch, “Premium Friday” has already proven unpopular, with only a small number of companies putting the plan into action, the Japan Times reported.
Ishikura said of the office incentives: “These things may help a bit in that it makes people aware or notice that it is 5 o’clock etc, but these measures seem to be so out of touch with the reality of work, like Premium Friday which really did not make any impact, and [was] short-lived.
“Fundamental change is needed.”
- Chris McGrath/Getty
In April, the government also proposed capping the number of overtime hours to 100 a month in an apparent attempt to curb the country’s toxic overwork culture.
Critics have dismissed the plan as futile. According to Reuters, a cardiovascular death is typically classified as karoshi if an employee has worked 100 hours of overtime in the month up to their death, or 80 hours of overtime in two or more consecutive months over the previous six.
Ichiro Natsume, head of the Labour Lawyers’ Association of Japan, told Agence France-Presse the government’s proposal was “tantamount to endorsing a limit that could cause overwork deaths.”
“This is a cosmetic change that is unlikely to dramatically change firms’ management practices and excessive demands on workers,” Kingston said.
“Karoshi is a manifestation of weak management skills and low productivity, so firms have a great opportunity to improve their performance and take better care of employees,” Kingston said. “Alas, there is a lingering faith in perspiration over inspiration, and a belief that total dedication and personal sacrifice are essential.”
Ishikura also said the proposed cap is “one attempt” to protect workers from karoshi, but not an end solution. “The fundamental issue is more of rigid and outdated labor practice[s], and people feel that they are not able to design their own career or lifestyle,” she said.
- REUTERS/Toru Hanai
“My treasure, living hope, and biggest support”
NHK was Sado’s first job after university. After graduating as a law major from Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University in 2005, she started work at the network’s office in Kagoshima, southern Japan, before moving to the Tokyo branch in 2010.
Sado was the youngest out of her team of five, which was plagued by bad teamwork, according to her mother. She rarely took weekends off and worked until midnight almost every night, the New York Times reported.
Miwa’s name means “peace to the future,” and was the eldest of three siblings. She was even supposed to get married, Asahi said: Before her cremation, her fiancé put a wedding ring on her.
Her mother said: “She was my treasure, living hope, and biggest support. After her passing, my life turned on its head and I am unable to smile and be happy from the bottom of my heart.”
The fear held in Japan by those who have examined the issues closely is that, unless far more drastic reform takes place, there will be more mothers making identical laments for years to come.