Live to Work or Work to Live

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Dr. Tetsunojyo Uehara first used the term of ‘過労死 (karoshi)’, and it is defined as 'death from overwork and stress'. Since the latter half of the 1980s, karojisatsu has also become a social issue in Japan. The occurrence of overwork death is closely related to a country's unique economic and social conditions, and even the value orientation of the entire society. In the 20th century, the rapid development of Japan's economy coupled with the general appreciation of the values of loyalty and collective identity, such as Japan's respect for the spirit of Bushido led to the desperate attitude of corporate workers, which promoted the spread of overwork in Japan. The employee's sense of self-worth and his position in society as a whole are closely related to the hard work of the company. As a result, frequent voluntary overtime work is commonplace.

After many successful legislation cases and progressively improved legislative proposals, anti-karoshi movement made a notable success in Japanese civil society. On one hand, karoshi has caused people to question the cost of economic growth, the work culture of society, and the balance between work and life. On the other hand, the advancement of karoshi compensation reflects the successful pursuit of worker rights. However, at the same time, it is unclear how much hope that the legislation could guarantee and approaches to solve this problem rely heavily on the pressure from the public. Due to Japan's unique cultural awareness and values, there is still a long way to go before the overwork problem can be completely dealt with.

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The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of the political economy, social culture and employment conditions related to karoshi in Japan, as well as to examine the working culture of Japanese workers and its relation to ‘karoshi’. It is argued that origins of karoshi in Japan are closely linked to the country’s political economic background and work culture in the society; solving this issue requires re-conceptualization in legislation and human rights of workers by enterprises and the entire society; studying overwork problems has international significance as well as the research value of the future trends.

The Origin and Definition of Karoshi

The term karoshi, or death from overwork, dates to the latter half of the 1970s and has been expanded to include severe mental and/or physical deterioration due to overwork. The first case of karoshi was reported in 1969 with the stroke-related death of a 29-year-old male worker in the shipping department of Japan's largest newspaper company. Awareness of the phenomenon gradually increased and by the late 1980s it was broadly recognized as a serious social issue. The parameters of the government’s definition of karoshi include working 100-plus hours of overtime in the month before their death, or 80 hours of overtime at least two consecutive months during the previous six months.

Dr. Tetsunojo Uehata, who coined the word Karoshi, has defined it as “a permanent disability or death brought on by worsening high blood pressure or arteriosclerosis resulting in diseases of the blood vessels in the brain, such as cerebral hemorrhage, subarachnoid hemorrhage and cerebral infarction, and acute heart failure and myocardial infarction induced by conditions such as ischemic heart disease (IHD)”. Also, it is a social medical term that applies specifically to workers' compensation and includes cases of both death and permanent disability. Now the Japanese government tries to stop the phenomenon of overwork death from the formulation of the legal system, the social mechanism, and the education and guidance of people's ideas and concepts.

The Political and Economic Background of Karoshi

With the continuous economic development process in Japan, ‘karoshi’ problems occur frequently in the public perspectives and social medias and its roots have been traced. After the sudden yen appreciation caused by the 1971 Nixon Shock, the 1973 Oil Crisis, economic growth slowed and production costs rose. Companies continue to prioritize market share, but because of their already small margins of squeeze, they are forced to reduce costs by increasing labor intensity and restructuring. This prompted the largest post-war strike in Japan from 1974 to 1975. In the early 1990s when the economy’s bubble collapsed, overwork culture got worse. During the ‘lost decade’, karoshi reached epidemic proportions; a long recession and an unprecedented number of bankruptcies and layoffs happened as well as deaths in management and professional soared and never recovered. Although most Asian countries were affected by the economic recession of the 1990s, Japan had the largest increase in the suicide rate and continued to have a high rate even following economic recovery. Moreover, the shrinking and aging population in Japan followed means a shortage of labor. Due to the inefficient working culture and the low use of technology, Japan becomes one of the least productive economies. Since the law has not kept up with the rapid expansion of the economy, workers are facing tremendous pressure from companies seeking to maximize profits. Soon after, a series of karoshi cases caused worldwide debate and also forced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to address the issue.

Basically, Japan’s management system is protected by government policies that allow employers to decide overtime for employees. So, protecting laborers health and maintaining every family’s completion has increasingly become a social problem to be solved.

The Social and Cultural Background of Karoshi

Japan’s culture evolved around loyalty and servitude to the country, and later this culture has translated into the workplace. The Japan Times stated that for centuries, people in Japan have been taught that loyalty is the supreme virtue. In numerous cases, companies that are built upon traditional Japanese values are very concerned with order, structure and power. In addition, companies paid a range of family benefits that cemented the paternal character of employment relations. Nowadays, this loyalty to the organization is often measured by the time spent on work. Aside from loyalty, Takoku McCrann, Ph.D. said in his essay that honor in Japanese culture has been put on a step; so, if a person lost honor, the only one way to preserve it is by killing yourself”. In addition, Japanese attitude toward suicide has always been an obstacle to suicide prevention. For example, suicide has been romanticized in media and literature, in the literary classic ‘Kokoro’ by Soseki Natsume, which is still a staple of school curricula, and that these kinds of portrayals contribute to permissive attitudes towards suicide. The unique cultural outlook makes suicide a glorious and romantic place in Japanese history.

Another cultural factor is that, Japanese people are very self-conscious; they know extremely well what other people think. This perception leads to overwork and stress but moreover, they feel it is their responsibility to satisfy and fit in expectations. The word of Karoshi has come to symbolize Japan's workaholic society. When facing with excessive overtime, this kind of mentality makes it hard for workers to say “no” or confronts their bosses, or takes the overtime off. In a word, whether from the perspective of corporate culture or the employees themselves, workers are powerless to negotiate their working hours or proper payments in such working culture.

Social Movement Promotes Legislation

After karoshi was identified in the 1970s, medical explanations were elaborated and national compensation for deaths grew. In the late 1970s, veterans of student protests entered this era and institutionalized as the vehicle for a variety of social movements that provide support for individuals and groups. They were fighting extended legal war under the enormous pressures of Japan’s conformist cultural system. And, participating in movement activities, including attendance at court trials, study groups, public protests give us insight into the overall tenor of the movement. So, several well-publicized karoshi cases help to reform the standard of compensation awarded to workers and raise the awareness of widespread overwork. Such as the female Japanese employee Takahashi Matsuri who committed suicide of work-related accident was widely reported by the global media, and her death caused an extreme shock in entire Japanese society. Therefore, it is imperative to call for the strengthening of public intervention for death from overwork. Recognition of karoshi claims by Japanese courts, including the Supreme Court, has gradually expanded the conception of employer’s responsibility to care for workers’ health. Those decisions laid the foundation for subsequent legislative activism. Therefore, these positive changes are made to ensure that workers work for their legal working rights and be able to combat overtime.

According to economist Morioka Koji, Professor at Kansai University and an authority on Japanese working hours and Karoshi, “To create a social problem in Japan, it is necessary to have a death and a trial with lawyers.” In its first white paper on karoshi, the government said one in five employees were at risk of death from overwork. In the year to March 2016, according to the government’s data, more than 2,000 Japanese killed themselves due to work-related stress while dozens of other people died from heart attacks, strokes and other diseases brought on by overtime work. In late March 2017, the government's ‘Realization of Work Style Reform’ action plan was finalized, and it states that overtime work should be kept under 100 hours in a particular busy month. In other words, the annual overtime limit was is 720 hours, but this does not include work on days off. So, this result is unsatisfactory for the policy allows 960 hours of overtime work per year.

On the one hand, the legislation defines ‘overwork death’ and makes provisions to confirm and measure the labor intensity more comprehensively and accurately. On the other hand, the legislation clearly incorporates ‘overwork death’ into the catalogue of occupational diseases, and solves the problems of the low cost of illegal business. Although all these efforts to legislation reform can bring hope, locate and support afflicted populations, but the current law is weak and remediation only addresses the worst cases, and social intervention strategies against karoshi need to address the more fundamental areas.

Solutions and Suggestions

Unlike their elders, many young Japanese workers want to spend less time working and more time pursuing leisure activities. And many of the victims blamed work stress and decisions made by the management of the company all over the world. To change the current situation, we need a legal system, corporate norms, as well as the government and international support as a joint force. Here are some solutions and suggestions from different perspectives in different areas.

At the enterprise level, it is necessary to focus on business ethics and corporate governance, or seek clues about how to spend less time in the office to increase productivity in countries such as Germany, France and Sweden. Such as working hour’s consultation mechanism, labor quotas and collectively negotiate with worker’s organizations to adapt to the actual conditions of enterprises, and reflect the willing of employees.

From the perspective of the Japanese government and workers’ organizations, all of them should have a consistent approach and work together to make improvements on this issue. The government should pay more attention to and guide more resources, including the revision of labor laws, the strengthening of supervision, inspection of the implementation of working hours and other regulations, and increase the punishment for violations. Industrial trade unions, industry associations, and workers' organizations shall strengthen the research and formulation of industry and labor standards, and provide basis and guidelines for enterprises to formulate reasonable and regular working hours. Also, cooperate with international organizations and support worker rights and interests at any time.

Global institutions such as the International Labor Organization (ILO) created measures to prevent Karoshi and Karojisatsu; from reducing working hours and excessive work; providing significant medical support and treatment for employees, and to promote dialogue between employees and their employers. This is from the perspective of international and corporate’s management systems. EU nations have policies for ameliorating work-life conflict, but such policies are comparatively lacking in Japan.

Lastly, the public must be involved in changing the work culture, such as recognize their responsibilities through changing consumption habits. In all, it will be the Japanese who have to finally decide to either continue this practice or join the rest of the modern world where we ‘work to live’, not ‘live to work’.

Studying Overwork Has International Significance

Overwork is a common problem in the entire region for a long time, but it will not increase the productivity of countries. And Japan’s experience and countermeasures have given us great inspiration. In the period 1990 and 2012, Peru and the Republic of Korea had the largest average working hours per person engaged, while Greece, Hungary, Japan, and the USA all have large average working hours.16 A study by the labor organization ILO from 2015 talks about 2,3 million people that lost their lives directly in work accidents. Most of them occurred in the global South.17 So, as we can see not only Japan, but also many international cases of overwork, karoshi are racking up. In 2010, 18 Foxconn workers in China attempted suicide; in 2013, an intern at Bank of America in London died after working for 72 hours non-stop; The Strait Times recorded that in 2008-2009, no less than 35 employees of France Telecom or Orange, committed suicide; in 2015, an employee at top Chinese Internet portal Tencent Holdings died suddenly while taking a walk.

Nowadays, karoshi is becoming a global social issue, with more and more serious and grim situation. It needs urgent regulations all over the world while many countries have not been incorporated into the scope of the legal adjustment, due to the lack of legislation. It is significant for us to learn from the experience of Japan, and to include death from overwork into the scope of industrial injury insurance or other protection regulations. For example, Japan drew up the 'Labor Standards Act'; in 1988, lawyers, doctors, and other experts came together to establish the aid group karoshi Hotline; in 2002, there are two regulations to prevent overwork were enacted; in 2005, the National Institute of Health proposed the establishment of a comprehensive industrial health service program to reduce karoshi and other disease caused by work-related stress in its annual report; in 2016, the Labor Ministry released the first white paper on the risks of death from overwork and preventative guidelines. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare even set up a ‘Labor Standards Supervisor’ to patrol and report on Japanese companies that violate regulations. In contrast to relevant legal protections, China currently has the ‘Work Injury Insurance’, and the pace of follow-up is urgent. With regard to the problem of overworked death in Japan, some international scholars have also conducted research on Japan with a developed employment system in order to consider how to change under the current institutional system in the future. Worth noting that, Japan has provided experience in this regard, whether workers are overworked before death is regarded as an important basis for investigation. So as to make the function of the industrial injury insurance system effectively prevent and contain the phenomenon of death from overwork,and finally achieve the purpose of better protection of the legitimate rights and interests of laborers.


The word ‘karoshi’ originated in Japan, as the first country to experience the phenomenon and the country with more serious dangers; it is also a country with relatively perfect theoretical research and construction. Due to the background of Japanese political economy, social culture and work culture, Japan’s current priority is global competitiveness, which will possibly slow down the improvement of employment practices and professional ethics. Although a series of measures were introduced politically and legally, these measures do not seem to work well in Japan. Approaches applied by the government to solve this problem are rather weak or rely heavily on the pressure from the public and the international community.

However, it is undeniable that there is great significance to study this field, not only for the development of Japanese society but also a plan for the other countries in the future. In particular, Japan’s efforts in legislation over overwork are ahead of schedule when comparing with other Asian countries. With the definition of overwork death is continually clear, the standard of identification is gradually refined, and even the frequency of travel and the working environment are included. The protection of workers by law stays both at the economic level and the height of life. This is meaningful for many countries that are still insufficient in labor legislation.

To properly handle ‘overwork death’ means to find the ways of the measures for preventive ways beforehand and the after-the-fact relief methods when it occurs. It is important to give workers perfect social security through companies, industrial trade unions, government and international community work together to achieve the purpose of ‘work to live’, and to get better protection of the legitimate rights and interests of laborers.


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