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JAPAN: Death from Overwork Persists Amid Economic Crunch

TOKYO, Oct 28 2009 (IPS) - One morning nine months ago, Kenji Hamada’s colleagues were surprised to find him in their Tokyo office slumped over his desk. They thought he was sleeping, but when he did not wake up after two hours, they realised he was dead.

Tokyo's Takao Mikoromo Spiritual Temple, where hundreds paid respects last month to the workers who died from overwork. Credit: Japan's Labor, Health and Welfare Ministry

Tokyo's Takao Mikoromo Spiritual Temple, where hundreds paid respects last month to the workers who died from overwork. Credit: Japan's Labor, Health and Welfare Ministry

Hamada had died of a heart attack. The culprit: overwork. He was 42.

In a country known for its overworked workforce, Hamada’s case is far from isolated. In fact, death from overwork, or ‘karoshi, has claimed thousands of lives since this phenomenon came to wide public attention and raised alarm in the ‘60s.

Just last month 800 people, including Hamada’s widow, gathered at Tokyo’s Takao Mikoromo Spiritual Temple, where they paid respects to the thousands of workers who died from stress and excessive work.

“Kenji worked so hard,” said his wife Akiko. “He was so stressed out, working day and night. She described his work environment at the security company where he was employed as “so competitive he never had any relief.” Her husband used to work around 75 hours a week—or an average of 15 hours a day, assuming he only worked five days a week—and spent almost four hours a day commuting to work.

Amid the current global economic downturn that has not spared even the world’s major economies like Japan, workplace stresses are picking up, according to lawyer Hiroshi Kawahito, who represents families and relatives of ‘karoshi’ victims. A weakening demand for exports and major companies cutting jobs has added immense pressure to the workplace, he said.

Because of the current global financial crunch, many companies, including those in Japan, were forced to downsize their workforce. This means that more work has to get done by fewer workers—a situation that has only exacerbated the incidence of ‘karoshi’ in Japan, according to Weston Konishi, adjunct fellow at the Mansfield Foundation in Washington D.C.,

Kawahito fears that ‘karoshi’ has taken on a new face — suicide. “This is something new,” he said. “About 20 years ago, heart attacks or strokes were a symbol of ‘karoshi’ in Japan. In 1994, for instance, Japan’s Economic Planning Agency estimated the number of ‘karoshi’ deaths at around 1,000, or 5 percent of all deaths from cardiovascular diseases, in the 25 to 59 age group.

Today, workers are committing suicide, and that is a major change, he said. Of the more than 30,000 suicides recorded last year, based on data from the national police agency, Kawahito said 10,000 were believed to be related to overwork.

“The stress on workers has been getting stronger and stronger, which has led to more people suffering from mental health illnesses such as depression,” he said. “Some of them end up killing themselves.”

One such case involved a 30-year-old woman working in a sales company. Enduring ill treatment from her boss, who was reportedly constantly yelling at her, she was forced to retire early before she finally committed suicide, recounts the National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi on its website. This non-governmental organisation was established in 1988 by a group of leading ‘karoshi’ lawyers to extend legal help to the families of ‘karoshi’ victims.

In February a Japanese company was ordered to pay around one million U.S. dollars in damages to the family of an employee who committed suicide due to what the court ruled was overwork.

The history of karoshi can be traced back to post-World War II, when the nation resolved to recover quickly, thus emerging as the world’s second largest economy in less than 30 years. Experts said the Japanese worked hard to make it happen so that by the end of the 1960s, they were working 12 or more hours a day, which by then was considered normal.

According to Japan’s Information Resource website, the first case of ‘karoshi’ was reported in 1969 when a 29-year-old married man, who had worked more than 40 days non-stop in the shipping department of Japan’s largest newspaper, died of a stroke.

Last year a survey by RENGO (Japanese Trade Union Confederation), the country’s biggest labor group, showed that 53 percent of workers had been increasingly suffering from stress. While many of the respondents found overwork irritating, others said it caused them mental and physical illnesses.

Nowadays, the Japanese still work long hours, adhere to strict codes, hierarchical structures and do not get much sleep or relaxation, Kawahito told IPS. Many Japanese need to change their lifestyles, he said.

Such change of lifestyle is perhaps steadily being found among the younger workforce, who, according to him, tend to take their work less seriously and therefore appear less prone to ‘karoshi’. They seem to be enjoying life, he said.

“I love drinking, eating good food, being with my friends and girlfriend, movies and computer games,” Hiroo Kawabata, 23, says.

There is yet no study, however, that shows which age groups tend to be more susceptible to ‘karoshi’. But one thing that Kawahito appears certain about is that the social phenomenon that for decades has gripped Japan seems no longer confined to this East Asian nation. He said of late there has been an influx of migrant workers at his office seeking legal help.

The global competition is growing, and some foreign workers work harder than they did 20 years ago, he explained. “And that’s what I am afraid of,” he said

The good news is that Japan’s Labor, Health and Welfare Ministry now recognises that there are work-related ailments due to stress. In 1999 the ministry formulated a standard that determined a company’s liability for work-related health problems among employees, including cardiac and cerebral disorders and mental stress. The mental stress standard was revised in 2009.

Still these are not enough to reverse the incidence of work-related deaths in Japan. “The government only sees part of [the problem],” Kawahito said. “In fact, they have only officially recognised 1,000 work-related suicides when the actual number is around 10,000.”

Complementing government’s efforts are those of the private sector. For instance, there is a ‘karoshi’ hotline, begun in 1988 by lawyers, doctors and other specialists from all over Japan, that gives counseling to those suffering from overwork as well as to those who have lost their loved ones to overwork. Since it was founded, it has received more than 8,000 calls.

Mansfield Foundation’s Konishi said ‘karoshi’ is one of those problems that Japanese society as a whole tends to sweep under the rug, because it touches on some social taboos such as mental stress and a pervasive office culture that makes it nearly impossible for employees to say “no” to their bosses when they are overworked.

While admittedly, ‘karoshi needs to be addressed head on, “social mores in Japan keep the issue from getting the attention that it deserves,” Konishi told IPS. For all its technological savvy as a nation, he said, Japan has not fully harnessed today’s technological advances, particularly in the workplace. “Much work is still done on paper rather than electronically.”

Add to this the fact that psychotherapy is still a relatively nascent practice in Japan. It could help employees who are under enormous amounts of pressure at the office, he said.

For others, perhaps dealing with ‘karoshi’ may not even require some sophisticated solutions, but only the chance to release one’s pent-up workplace angst through creative means.

Recognising this, some ingenious individuals have devised ‘karoshi’ computer games, one of which offers “50 clever ways” of dealing with an otherwise merciless or cruel boss, who, in the workers’ minds, have much to answer for their misery.

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