Is Working Hard Always a Good Thing? A Look Into Japan’s “Working-to-Death” Culture

Working hard is a good thing, right? Well, not in Japan, where people are dying from working too hard. This is such a problem in Japan that they even have a word for it: Karoshi, meaning death due to overwork.

Earlier this week, the death of Miwa Sado, a 31-year-old journalist working for news broadcaster NHK in Tokyo, Japan, was announced. Japanese labor regulators have ruled that her heart failure was caused by her grueling work schedule, which included a single month with 159 hours of overtime and just two days off. In fact, she was discovered in her bed with her cellphone still in her hand.

Shockingly, this is not the first time that Japan has witness such death. In 2015, Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old employee at the Japanese advertising agency Dentsu, jumped to her death after working for more than 100 hours of overtime a month. These two cases triggered debate on Japan’s overtime culture where it’s frowned upon to leave before your colleagues or boss.

“It’s sad because young workers think they don’t have any other choice,” Makoto Iwahashi, who works for an organization running a helpline for Japanese workers, told BBC. “If you don’t quit, you have to work 100 hours. If you quit, you just can’t live.”

The only solution is to enforce a legal limit on the number of overtime hours that employees are permitted to work. Citizens and labor lawyers have been fighting for changes in the Japanese law to recognize karoshi as a serious social issue. In  2014, a law which required the central government to take action was enacted, yet it failed to force companies to follow. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came up with a plan calling for a maximum of 100 overtime hours a month. However, The Labour Lawyers’ Association of Japan has claimed that this plan is “impossible to support” and it only worked to further promote the overtime culture.

Despite the government’s failure, changes are coming. Many companies have taken actions, working towards the solution to work-life balance. For instance, local government offices in Toshima, a district of downtown Tokyo, decided to turn the office lights off at 7 p.m., forcing people to go home.



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