Saturday, October 29, 2016

Working to Death

Work culture in Japan is an issue that can quickly be noticed when living in this culture. Working hard is a highly valued trait in this society, but working hard does not always translate to productivity. In this culture, just being present is enough to show an employee's value. In a professional office setting, it is often said that one shouldn't leave before their boss. That means, if your boss is hanging around the office until 8, 9, or 10 p.m., you should be at your desk too, even if it only means you've been toiling away hours on Facebook. Deeply rooted in the seniority system, this practice is how employees advance in  most work situations. Proving your worth usually comes in the quantity of time spent, not necessarily the quality of work performed.

However, with this system, efficiency can be lost. In some cases it can be lost in the greatest sense of the word. It can actually kill people. 

Karo-shi, is the Japanese word labeling the phenomenon "death by over work." This term can be used to describe an otherwise healthy person who is succumb to sudden death by heart attack, stroke, starvation diet, and especially suicide, due to immense work pressure, stress, and long work hours. 

In 2015 a 24-year old woman named Matsuri Takahashi took her own life. She was a top graduate of
her class at the University of Tokyo after which she began a highly coveted job at Dentsu, Inc., one of Japan's leading advertising firms. She put in  painstakingly long hours to perform well and keep up, not uncommon of people in Japan's corporate world. Her family filed a suit against Dentsu for wrongful death, and very recently, the company was found to be at fault. The family's case was helped by the evidence that Matsuri had logged 105 hours of overtime in one month alone, when the company's supposed limit is 70 hours. Overtime are the hours logged on top of the 40-hour work week, and often times go unpaid. 
Matsuri is by far not the only person to succumb to the pressures of being overworked.  This epidemic has been continuously present for these several decades following Japan's post World War II rise in economic power. She is only one story that has received national attention highlighting this problem.

Additionally, the company of Dentsu, is not the only company guilty of imposing excessive working hours. According to an article in the Japan Times, nearly a quarter of Japanese companies reported that some of their employees are logging more that 80 hours of over time per month. It also stated that about 21% of employees worked more than 49 hours per week compared with 16% in the United States and 12.5% in the United Kingdom.

With deaths like these, it's impossible for the government of Japan not to get involved.

Steps are being taken to address this tougher to ignore issue. In September of this year a government-backed panel began meeting to discuss strategies to lessen the burden of excessive work hours, low salaries of part-time workers, and a stagnant female workforce.

In the wake of scrutiny, Dentsu has lowered its limit on the amount of overtime allowed to 65 hours per week. Fifty other Japanese companies like Daiwa Securities Group Inc. and Seven & I Holdings Co., have signed a pact to end the excessive work hours asked of their employees. Yahoo Japan Corp. is considering a 4-day work week as well as subsidizing employee commuting costs. Tokyo's new governor, Yuriko Koike, had recently mandated that  government employees must leave work by 8 p.m.

Believe what you will about long working hours. I think judgement of this issue may come from a cultural bias and one may impose their own cultural beliefs when agreeing how many hours employees should be expected to work. Though whatever they believe, Japanese can't continue to ignore this because it is clearly posing huge problems in society:

  • Young women entering the workforce are subjected to long working hours making it near impossible to bear and care for children, thus adding to the low birth rate Japan is experiencing. 
  • It portrays a horrible image to Japanese people and foreigners alike. With a shrinking workforce, Japan looks to other countries to recruit talent. But, with a work culture like this, it becomes harder to attract foreigners who are not willing to endure this grueling work culture. 
  • If Japanese youth choose to work abroad, they may not choose to return when they experience a work culture that allows for a for flexible work-life balance. 

Facts and photo sourced from The Japan Times and: