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Moving the Goalposts for Karoshi

The first reported case of karoshi (過労死) occurred in 1978. Essentially, a worker will die from being overworked. Karojisatsu is a similar phenomenon wherein suicides are connected to overwork. In recent years, the death of a worker on Christmas Day 2015 made karoshi a major issue in Japanese politics.

Hiding the Cracks

Excuses for karoshi came out after the downturn of the Japanese economy in the 1990s. During the boom period, such horrifying outcomes of the Japanese work environment could be overlooked. This was an easy job for Western media because companies at the time were swiftly adopting Japanese business ideology (“salaryman,” “kaizen”). In addition, these practices were explained in writing about “Japanese identity.” The books were often supported by the government, businesses, cultural cash grabs; all using circular logic: it’s “Japanese because the Japanese do it,” or “the Japanese do it because it’s Japanese.” Japanese people were expected to accept it as a part of them. This was despite the fact that these values were learned through schooling and the media. To this day, similar arguments can be found claiming the “salaryman” is an honorable figure. Arguing that dying for the sake of the business is noble.

This is not to say there is no native opposition to this rhetoric. Japanese protestor Baba explained the issue with the “salaryman” rhetoric when speaking to academic Robin LeBlanc. Their exchange is described thus: “Baba expressed despite for the entire idea of noble sacrifice romanticized as manly duty; he said he hated the very word ‘gisei.’ He repeatedly pointed out that actual sacrifices were never evenly distributed among people. The powerful men who praised a masculine spirit of self-effacement were more likely to be the beneficiaries of others’ sacrifices than to bear loss themselves.”

LeBlanc added, “[Business owners] differed with Baba only in their conviction that the risks and sacrifices were valuable and honorable.” Destructive outcomes are not just ignored but celebrated. Many argued toward the end of the 1990s that change was coming in the Japanese business world and likewise that flexible employment would supplant the rigid university pipeline and seniority systems. This turned out to be wrong though, instead of ending practices like spring employment and allowing workers to move between jobs without devaluing their position; the increased flexibility simply created a precariat class of people getting by on multiple jobs.

In the essay “Do the Japanese Really Work Till they Drop?” Yoshitaka Fukui argues that the overwork issue is overstated in the media. This argument has significant issues, however. Yoshitaka Fukui admits karoshi exists, but he thinks the phenomenon was a series of frivolous lawsuits. It does not change that these people killed themselves or died from circulatory failure, or that the companies admitted these deaths were work-related. Fukui even admits that he lacks the statistics on hours of overtime because all the overtime in question was unpaid. The main argument the piece makes is that the trains are most packed around six or seven when departing metro areas and that those are most likely workers. Be it an argument of coming change, that the claims are frivolous, noble sacrifice, or attempts to outright ignore the issue, karoshi has not gone away.

The Current State of Karoshi

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 250 insurance payments over labor-related heart or brain failure were made in 2015; 96 of these cases were fatal. The threshold for something to be considered karoshi being eighty hours of unpaid overtime a month.

With the ever-growing consciousness of karoshi incidents, Japanese activists and politicians have tried to push for stricter legislation on businesses to stop this abuse of the workers. In the last few years, a bill was passed in the Diet by the Liberal-Democratic Party, which currently holds the strongest coalition. While this did put some restrictions in place, overtime has been limited to under one-hundred hours a month, more than the current threshold. And in an instance of astonishing legislative malpractice, Prime Minister Abe’s party has managed to make the laws even worse in the financial sector.

As explained in a Wall Street Journal article: “Opposition parties in Japan said Mr. Abe’s legislation didn’t go far enough, and they criticized part of it that actually eases work-hour rules instead of tightening them. Under that part, companies have the option of putting professional workers such as financial analysts with annual salaries of more than 10 million yen ($90,500) into a separate category under which they are exempted from work-hour regulations.”

Yes, the law designed to tighten the limit on hours of overtime was actually loosened for employees in certain sectors under the new law. In addition, new legally binding limits on overtime include exceptions for “busy periods.” This raises an important question, why is Japan’s government and its business enterprises still making these decisions? It was claimed in the late 90s that corporate abuse was on its way out. But, as of now, it’s not. Both the means of abusing workers’ rights to the point of literal death as well as a rigid culture of employment have been maintained.

The government has not stepped up to effectively keep such powers in check. During the 80s these issues were hand waived because the economy was booming, during the 90s it was assumed it would be disposed of on its own, and during the new millennium, the argument is that these sacrifices of the workers are necessary to keep the economy steady for when Prime Minister Abe’s economic policy kicks in. Abenomics has not kicked in, the economic plan failed. The only people who give everything for the system — even their lives — are the workers who are treated the worst by the system and given the least power. More corporatist bandaging will not fix this problem. Japanese bureaucracy is not doing its part; the workers are.