Shifting Society No. 12 - Karoshi: Corporate abuse of traditional 'loyalty'

Listening to the woes of a young Japanese woman of my acquaintance, the dangers inherent to a salaryman's existence were brought home to me like never before. Her fiancé, not yet 30 years old, has been suffering from serious health problems, including stomach pain and severe headaches. The apparent cause: chronic overwork, usually until 10 p.m., frequently later, day in, day out, adding up to easily 100 hours a month. Last weekend he cancelled a social appointment because his head hurt too much.

I was shocked by this revelation, and urged her to persuade her fiancé to change jobs, preferably to a company with a different work ethic. Not only is his health at stake, but potentially his life as well. I reminded her of that peculiarly Japanese form of sudden death related to excessive overwork, known as karoshi, which in recent years has increasingly made the headlines. It is caused by the inhumanly long hours many office and factory workers, mostly men but women as well, are required to stay chained to their desks or factory floor, often until close to midnight and beyond. The resulting extreme stress, depression and sheer exhaustion inevitably take their toll and sometimes result in sudden death. The annual number of officially recognized karoshi now runs into the hundreds.

Japanese office workers have always been known to devote themselves wholly to their employer and career, to the neglect of family, personal enjoyment of life and, yes, their own health. Stomach ulcers, headaches and other symptoms of stress, have been a feature of Japanese corporate life here for as long as I can remember - which means more than 55 years - and I myself have had my brush with similar health problems early in my career. And I wasn't even working for a Japanese boss!

But karoshi is different. It is a shocking symptom of the way parts of corporate Japan have responded to the increasingly competitive environment that followed the collapse of the economic bubble in the early 1990s. Not only did the resulting belt-tightening cause widespread layoffs in a culture used to life-long employment, it also placed ever heavier burdens on the remaining labor force. In the earlier years of restructuring this was considered inevitable, but once the economy was back on track, from around 2002 or so, with business profitability restored, the pressure on employees to perform far above what was reasonable, intensified. It continues to this day.

The excuse used is 'necessity' in the face of 'continuing uncertainty', 'the threat from China', 'the need to keep watching expenses' and the like. But even some thriving world-class names are guilty of the practice, which is usually disguised as 'service overtime', supposedly done of the employee's own volition. In that way the employer not only avoids paying overtime after a certain hour (say 8 p.m.) or in excess of a maximum number of hours per week, they don't even record the extra hours as they do not constitute approved overwork.

The evil of 'service overtime'

But nobody is fooled by the euphemism. Their heavy workloads leave the workers no choice but to skip dinner and stay at their desk until it is cleared. On the way home they may grab a quick bowl of noodles, or stop by a convenience store to pick up an instant meal, "just add boiling water". Their 'service overtime' seriously disrupts their lives, and not getting paid for it is an abuse of workers' rights.

Traditional notions of loyalty and docility long made office workers swallow conditions like these without protest. The government decision, in the 1980s, to recognize karoshi as a cause of death, and to accept applications for its official designation as such, has improved the lot of survivors, as the designation requires employers to pay overtime arrears. But only about half of the applications are successful, a result that has caused many cases to be taken to court.

Yet the practice persists, as illustrated by a particularly nasty case involving, of all companies, Toyota Motors. One of their quality control officers died suddenly at his office in 2002, aged 30. The company said that his death was not due to overwork as he had only done 38 hours of overtime in the month before he died. When proof was produced that he had in fact worked 144 extra hours that month, the company responded that that had been voluntary work, which did not qualify for overtime pay. His widow took the case to court, which in November 2007 ruled in her favor. Toyota had no comment on the case. (The Economist of December 19, 2007, and the International Herald Tribune of June 11, 2008 carried articles on karoshi).

I believe that at least some of the excessive burdens of work could be lightened by improving management procedures. Everyone living in Japan knows that each step, however small, in a Japanese production, registration or distribution process is double and triple-checked against preset standards, a process that does minimize obvious errors, but is inordinately time-consuming. And it carries with it the paradoxical downside of making employees less self-reliant: as everything is routinely checked against management-dictated norms, there is no room for personal input.

Japan's economy, still the second largest, is often held up as a model for Asia, if not the world. But until it cleans up its employment practices - which, incidentally, should include adequate maternity leave and child-care provisions to combat the sharp decline in births - Japan will continue to lag behind in any league table purporting to measure "quality of life" and "safety of working conditions" among the world's advanced nations.

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© 2008 Hans Brinckmann