Japan has some of the longest working hours in the world, and some young Japanese workers are literally working themselves to death. Now there are calls for the government to do more.
It’s overtime culture in Japan. Nearly a quarter of Japanese companies have employees working more than 80 hours overtime a month, often unpaid, a recent survey found. And 12% have employees breaking the 100 hours a month mark. Those numbers are important as 80 hours overtime a month is regarded as the threshold above which you have an increased chance of dying.
Michiyo Nishigaki was a proud mother when her only son Naoya landed a job at a large Japanese telecoms company, straight out of college. But just two years later things started to go wrong.
Her son came home for father’s funeral and he couldn’t get out of bed. He said: ‘Let me sleep a while, I can’t get up. Sorry, Mum, but let me sleep’.
Later she learned from colleagues that he worked until the last train, but if he missed it he slept at his desk. “In the worst case he had to work overnight, working 37 hours in total.
Two years later Naoya died at the age of 27 from an overdose of medication. His death was officially rule a case of “karoshi” – the Japanese term to describe death attributed to overwork.
Japan has a culture of long working hours and this is not a new phenomenon – it was first recorded in the 1960s – but recently high-profile cases have thrust karoshi back into the spotlight.
On Christmas Day in 2015, 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi, an employee at the Japanese advertising agency Dentsu, jumped to her death. It emerged she had barely slept after working more than 100 hours of overtime a month in the period leading up to her death.
It’s sad because young workers think they don’t have any other choice. So, if you don’t quit you have to work 100 hours. If you quit you just can’t live.
Overtime culture In Japan
Japan’s government has been under increasing pressure to act, but the challenge has been to break a decades-old work culture where it’s frowned upon to leave before your colleagues or boss. Workers are entitled to 20 days leave a year but currently about 35% don’t take any of it.
A cultural challenge still looms In Japan now. Both Japan’s government and its companies say they’re now actively endeavoring to reduce working hours throughout Japan. The government considered several initiatives to curb the number of hours spent at the office.
Last year, the government launched an initiative called Premium Fridays, in which it encouraged companies to allow their employees to leave at 3 p.m. on the last Friday of the month.