Summer of 2015 saw a 46 year old man, working in a housing construction engineering firm, fatally collapse on duty. The aftermath of The Great East Japan Earthquake paved way for massive reconstruction projects on the coasts of Miyagi and Iwate, thereby multiplying his firm’s and in turn his own workload. By October 2016, the incident was officially recognized as a work related death and it was later revealed that he exceeded the “Karoshi line” – of monthly 80 hours of overtime– for months, clocking as high as 109 hours the month before his death. His family filed a suit on June 2017 against the company claiming that he was placed under tremendous pressure and workload. Another uneventful but increasingly common death explained away as yet another case of subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), the major medical cause of death in karoshi . For his family, though, any compensation would be hard to come by as is the case with the basic recognition of karoshi for many others .
Medically speaking, Karoshi – death from overwork – is usually the extreme result of acute cardiovascular events including stroke. Sudden deaths from which were first recognized in the late 1970s. Around the late 1990s, previously unrecognized karojisatsu – suicide induced by overwork – was also brought to the public attention as a workplace injury. The scale of karoshi and karojisatsu still remain underappreciated as The National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi estimates as many as 10,000 Japanese workers to have died from karoshi annually. Whereas the official numbers of 96 and 93* for karoshi and karojisatsu respectively in the fiscal year of 2015, seem out of place to say the least. These numbers were presented in the government’s first-ever white paper on karoshi, which in essence, points to the need to place effective caps on the working hours of company workers. This seemingly straightforward suggestion does not appear to be unwarranted and has been the frontline issue of the Abe administration when dealing with this issue. But this myopic perspective on solving a complex problem comes with its own failures. Not much unlike the failure of the Abe administration which materialized its much touted promise of “work-style reforms” as an absurdly loose cap of 100 hours per month of overtime. Proposed in April, this cap comes against the backdrop of 45 hours a month overtime cap placed by The Labor Standards Law.
Policy disasters aside, to conceptualize a structured solution for the problem of worker deaths, sufficient attention needs to be given to the historical source and its evolution through societal changes. Since, the problems of Karoshi and Karojisatsu are more prevalent in Japan than any other country, a natural but arguably spurious explanation of “culture causality” starts becoming commonplace. This argument points solely to the national specificity of the problem thereby deriving a causation from an association, conveniently ignoring historical and institutional aspects of it.
Early postwar years saw a healthy proliferation of unions and its number of memberships. Reacting against the rampant discrimination, spearheaded by the blue-collar workers  the unions were driven mostly by three demands: the abolition of discriminatory treatment of blue-collar workers; the pursuit of “livelihood wage”; and the protection of job security. Though basically accepted, these demands had wildly unintended consequences. The anti-discriminatory calls regarding the blue-collar workers, pejoratively called shokko (factory hands), did not account for the female employees as they were expected to quit upon marriage and therefore not considered to earn “breadwinner wages”. Similarly, the livelihood wage demand requesting ability-based pay spiraled into the development of secretive and ambiguous evaluative criteria by the managers to judge workers which went unchallenged by the unions.  In addition, this resulted in a livelihood wage that was decided by age and family size, not by the nature of the job. However, the pursuit of job security had the most catastrophic consequence among all the demands. The workers rallied under the slogan of “totally against dismissal”, having close ties with livelihood wage demand. The Japanese corporations exploited this by hiring young and single workers whose wages were lower and essentially started trapping them in their jobs as it was nigh impossible for a middle-ages worker with family to find another job with similar wage, identical to the present day. Further calls for liberal egalitarian changes were then firmly crushed under an all-encompassing critique of “Western cultural traits” 
In early 1950s, driven by a deep seated fear of labor activism, corporations with the help of government, were able to severely weaken the unions through mass dismissals of nearly 12,000 workers deemed as Communists.  They also prohibited intra-enterprise unions to use any third party, like an industry-wide federation, to have any bargaining power causing the unions to work from within the corporations. The tactics worked and by 1960s the unions were the most cooperative and amenable to the corporations. This period saw the introduction of hi-seiki jugyoin (non-regular employees) under the guise of battling economic recession and protecting the jobs security of regular employees, further solidifying the idea that unions had no influential presence.
Having built enough background, the direct causes for the problem can now be analyzed without falling back to the culturalist explanations of nihonjinron (cultural uniqueness).
The labor unions’ failure to push for equal pay for equal job (livelihood wage) and their acceptance of ambiguous merit evaluation has given rise to a person-based pay system where wage is attached to the person instead of the job. This provides corporations a chance to superficially widen the “skill-set” of their employees and thereby increasing internal labor flexibility, and with it, the workload. By making each worker do multiple tasks, they cut out additional wages that can hire potential employees and in turn severely making their employees more vulnerable to karoshi and karojisatsu syndrome. As wages are determined by one’s “skill” grade or level within the corporation, this results in virtually no horizontal or upward mobility across the internal labor markets. In other words, an employee has no chance of leaving their job and finding another one with similar wage or position. Corporations blanket hire young university graduates based on their “latent ability” rather than tangible skills resulting in enterprise-specific development. This practice reduces the employees as useful only to their corporation. Furthermore, once a worker becomes ‘non-regular’, it is improbable that he/she will be ever hired as a regular employee, forcing them to live their lives without stable employment. So, in practice, regular employees have no exit strategy but to resort to self-harm.
The above certainly does not encompass all the causes, especially the top-down ideological indoctrination of young employees prevalent since 1990s, influencing them to basically live for the corporation. Nevertheless, having laid out some of the tangible problems, tangible solutions can now be focused on instead of being bogged down by communal rationale. The structural faults, undoubtedly, lie within the institutional arrangements. So concrete institutional changes countering the above problems are the way to look forward to. Understandably, there is no shortage of clear, well-articulated solutions suggested by experienced social and industry experts. The objective still remains to guide the spotlight to problems concealed by the incessantly futile discourse regarding pseudo-causes within the government and in public sphere.
In light of this, the family of the anonymous 46 year old victim of Karoshi in Miyagi may never see the justice they deserve, given that the country saw that the high profile case karojisatsu of the 24-year-old Dentsu employee yielded but a mere slap on the hand for the executives with open trial pending.
Karoshi Hotline 過労死110番
- Overwork, Stroke, and Karoshi-death from Overwork, Der-Shin Ke, Acta Neurologica Taiwanica Vol 21 No2, June 2012
- The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, White Paper report, 2016
- Portraits of the Japanese Workplace, Kumazawa Makoto, Westview Press, 1996
- 終身雇用 (Lifetime Employment), Nomura Masami, Iwanami Shoten, 1994
- 強制された健康：日本ファシズム化の生命と身体 (Coerced Healthiness: Life and Body under Japanese Fascism), Fujino Yutaka, Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 2000
- The Evolution of Labor Relations in Japan: Heavy Industry, 1853-1955, Andrew Gordon, Harvard University Press, 1985
*The number includes suicides and suicide attempts in the given fiscal year
All opinion articles reflect the writer’s opinion.