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In Japan, what is Karoshi?

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  • Written By: Sheri Cyprus
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 22 August 2016
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In Japan, karoshi means "death from overwork." The term is said to have originated in 1982 when three Japanese doctors published a book entitled Karoshi that noted many victims of overworking and included research into their deaths. The victims were young men that were otherwise healthy, but worked more than 60 hours a week on average and had died on the job from heart attacks and strokes.

Between the mid-1940s and the mid-1970s, a disproportionate number of Japanese men in their thirties and forties were dying on the job of cardiovascular problems. The first publicized case didn't occur until 1969 when a 29 year old male working for the largest newspaper in Japan died from a stroke. Public outcry since that time has led to monetary compensation being awarded for karoshi victims' families and some workplace changes were put in place. However, many Japanese people feel that most so-called anti-karoshi policies are not effective as Japan's work system is still conducive to excessive work and job stress.

Karoshi is attributed to the style of workplace management known as Japanese Production Management (JPM). High production is the main focus of JPM and studies have found that JPM has contributed to sudden deaths due to high work expectations and high stress. The Japanese call these types of deaths karoshi and one study found that 46% of 500 business workers studied at top Tokyo companies feared that they would become karoshi victims.

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A major characteristic of JPM is that no time is supposed to be wasted. It's a stressful work system because even seconds that are wasted are considered unacceptable. Another main characteristic of JPM is the teamwork approach. If even one worker takes seconds longer than is considered the most efficient time to complete a task, then the whole team becomes slower which slows down production. There can be great pressure not to be the person responsible for slowing down the team.

Several groups that oppose JPM and advocate karoshi prevention exist in Japan, as well as karoshi hotlines. In 1988, a group of lawyers formed the National Defense Council for Victims of Karoshi. Although much has been done to help prevent karoshi and to help aid the families of karoshi victims financially, Japan is still a country of long working hours. Japan is noted as having the longest working hours of all industrialized countries as its workers average at least 60 hours of work per week.

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anon282992
Post 4

Make sure you stay healthy. I just wanted to share this with fellow writers. We all know that sitting behind a desk for too long may harm us, but how can we make sure we don’t kill ourselves by sitting for too long in front of a computer? At least this is what NY times says, quite scary. There are some fun sites online to remind us to take a break. --Stacy

fify
Post 3

@feruze, @ simrin-- The sad part is that karoshi deaths are a lot more than people realize. Several decades ago, it was estimated that ten thousand people died from overworking annually in Japan. I can't imagine what that number must be like now.

I'm no expert on Japan's policies but as far as I know, the government isn't doing very much to prevent deaths from overworking. It doesn't even officially recognize karoshi policy wise as far as I know. So it's kept far from the agenda.

Hopefully, at some point, the Japanese government will realize that karoshi is as much a threat to their development and economy as inefficiency is.

bear78
Post 2
@simrin-- Eighty hours a week is probably the minimum that karoshi victims were or are putting in. Other estimates say that those who die from karoshi generally put in one hundred work hours or more.

Also keep in mind that most companies don't "require" their employees to work so many hours. Most of that is overtime that employees actually volunteer to do and they often don't get overtime pay for it either.

I think hard work has become a culture in Japan after World War II. There is so much competition between companies and pressure to do well that employees get entrapped in this vicious circle. They become so used to working hard that even if they are given time off like you said, they don't really rest and end up thinking about work.

SteamLouis
Post 1

I heard this term for the first time in the news the other day. There was a ruling made in Japan about the death of an engineer working for a famous Japanese car company. The Japanese courts ruled it as "karoshi" and entitled the man's family for benefits.

Apparently the engineer had been working eighty hour work weeks before he passed away! I get exhausted working forty-fifty hour work weeks. No wonder he couldn't take it anymore!

Is this why Japanese companies are said to be incorporating stress relieving activities like exercise rooms and yoga sessions into their employee's workday now? Why don't they give their employees shorter work hours or proper weekend holidays instead? It doesn't make sense to me to overwork them, give them yoga and then hope that they stay alive.

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