People are working themselves to death in Japan and the government is finally taking it seriously

Catching up on some zzzzz.
Catching up on some zzzzz.
Image: REUTERS/Yuya Shino
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Karoshi, or death from overwork, has long been associated with Japan’s highly demanding work culture that emphasizes in-office face time and extra hours. For the first time, the government has crunched the numbers to find out just how bad the problem is.

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare released a Cabinet-endorsed white paper (link in Japanese) today (Oct. 7), on the extent and effect of working overtime in Japan. The report’s research targeted some 10,000 companies and 20,000 workers. Of these, 1,743 companies and 19,583 workers responded over two months, starting last December. The report comes after the ministry declared last November “karoshi awareness month” (link in Japanese).

Almost 23% of companies (pdf, p.52, link in Japanese) said that their workers clocked more than 80 hours of overtime a month, the report says. Of those, 11.9% of companies said they had workers logging more than 100 hours of extra time a month. More than one-quarter, 29.6%, of those companies with workers working over 100 hours extra time a month were in the IT and communications industry. Academia, postal services, and transport companies also fared poorly.

A general awareness of labor rights is on the rise in Japan. In 2014, a law aimed at preventing karoshi went into force, as death from overwork remains a huge social problem, according to the legislation (link in Japanese). Karoshi deaths include suicide from work-related mental stress and cardiovascular illnesses arising from overwork, according to Reuters.

Karoshi-related compensation claims from dead workers’ families hit a record high in the year ending March 2015, according to data (link in Japanese) from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Watami, a large Japanese low-cost restaurant chain, agreed to allow its workers to unionize this year, after a worker committed suicide in 2008, resulting in a court settlement between the company and the worker’s family in 2015.