Working Till Death Do Us Part

4 mins read

By Chigusa Suma 

Approximately two years ago, the shocking news about a 31-year-old female journalist dying from heart failure caused by overworking enveloped Japan. It even shocked people living overseas. Sadly, it is not uncommon to die from overwork in Japan, as indicated by the statistics provided by the Japanese Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare. It seems that the number of people who die from overworking has decreased since 2008 when it was at its highest, but still the number has never gone below 200 deaths per year since 2002. Of course, what constitutes “death by overworking” has very strict parameters, so this number only includes those whose deaths have been officially classified as such. The actual number is probably much higher than what the data shows. This working situation in Japan seems quite shocking, especially to foreigners, but is so common in Japan that the Japanese word for overworking to death, “karoshi”, was added to the Oxford dictionary in 2002. 

This Japanese spirit of overworking has many contributing factors starting from when Japan was experiencing high economic growth after World War II. This is perhaps when the Japanese custom of overworking became a virtue. Employees claim that overtime work is taken for granted and it is particularly hard for new workers who cannot leave the office until the boss leaves for the day. Moreover, in Japan, it is customary to drink after work. It is not something you can skip and is often mandatory. It is rude to refuse when your boss invites you and will affect your evaluation at the company. Though the rapid economic growth ended in 1997, nothing has changed concerning the working situation. Even after the economic collapse, the working culture stayed the same. I think it is time to change the working situation in Japan since overworking has not caused a remarkable growth, and working overtime is not compensated. 

When I moved to Sweden for a one-year exchange, I found lots of differences compared to Japan and one of the main realizations for me was operating hours for stores. At one time, I was looking for somewhere to kill the time before heading to Kyudo practice around 19:30. I found almost nowhere to settle since almost all the stores in the city centre close between 17 and 19 o’clock, even on weekdays. Living in Japan, I thought stores closing at 20:00 was pretty early, since almost all stores and restaurants are open until 22, or more recently, open for 24 hours. This is because in Sweden, overtime work is limited to 200 hours per year, but in Japan, this limitation of overtime work is 360 hours. In addition, Sweden was rewarded by UNICEF in 2019 for having the most gentle family care policy. In Sweden, as a father you can take up to 10 days of parental leave right after your child is born and get paid 80 percent of your salary. In 2004, almost 80 percent of fathers used this system. On the other hand, Japan was awarded for the best parental leave system for men because they can take up to 30.4 weeks of leave with full payment. However, only 5 percent of fathers used this system. This is because most of the time, doing so could jeopardize any chance of a promotion at work. 

Japan has many problems when it comes to work culture. The biggest obstacle to improving the situation is the cultural institution which considers overworking as a virtue. Since this issue is caused by the prevalent “old culture”, there needs to be a shift of power from the older generation to the younger generation or to make the older generation learn from the work style of other countries. The only possible solution is to allow employees to interact with other cultures and allow them to rethink their working style.

To fix this, we need to emulate work styles from other countries through international interaction and exchanges, such as overseas internships and job experiences in foreign countries.  The younger generation, who will go on to lead the next generation, will get a sense of this new working style and we can hope that they apply these styles in their future workplace. 

One obstacle that is often cited to prevent people from taking parental leave is that there is a lack of employees and that the company cannot withstand losing its work force for any given amount of time. One of the reasons why employees are reluctant to take parental leave is because there is a deficit of eligible workers, which is the result of having a large aging population. To make up for this deficit, I believe Japan should welcome immigrants and refugees. With a combination of skilled and unskilled workers, the deficit could be made up for.

There are approximately 341.800 asylum seekers who have difficulties finding jobs and even homes. As one of the developed countries that have the responsibility to take care of these problems, Japan should welcome both immigrants and refugees so that they can find a way to live as well as people born Japanese. 

To conclude, Japan is facing a deadly serious problem of “karoshi”, or death by overworking, and the number of people who die because of this has never gone below 200 ever since the economic crisis. Comparing these severe working circumstances with Sweden, my new home, I found lots of things that we urgently need to improve in Japan, such as the working hours and the parental leave situation. In order to do that, we first need to change the Japanese culture of considering overwork a virtue. Perhaps this could be accomplished through international interaction. Moreover, to solve a lacking number of workers in Japan,  we need to accept immigrants and refugees to get help to escape from a current working situation. 

 Illustration:  Scott Huber

Chigusa Suma was born in Nagoya, Japan in 1999 as a second and the last daughter in the family. Jumping around several schools in the world starting from elementary school in China, junior high school in England and Singapore, senior high school in Canada and University in England, Paris and Uppsala including short term study.  Studying English as a first major and international politics as second major. Currently working on a volunteering project to help students in Sri Lankan. Enjoys kyudo (Japanese Archery), baking and cooking.

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