Working to death: Why Japanese jobs are killing people

Working to death: Why Japanese jobs are killing people

You think your job is hard? Feel like you're clocking in too much overtime? Try living in Japan - a culture where the rat race has morphed into a dystopian farce, and people actually have a word - "karōshi" - for when white collar employees work themselves to death. The hellish commute, the stress of their jobs and the occupational hazards of mandatory (and often unpaid) overtime can push Japanese people into an early grave.

In the west, the idea of office workers being forced to work as wage slaves to this extent would be a national scandal; one with major ramifications for the corporation guilty of worker exploitation. But in the far east? It's business as usual in the business district. Sado expired not as a result of suicide, but due to a heart attack from overwork. It later emerged that NHK, the country's public broadcaster, had forced Sado to work 159 hours of overtime and she took only two days off in the month leading up to her death in July 2013, yet her death was only determined to be the result of karōshi in October 2017.

Last month, the deadly phenomenon became too dire for the Japanese to ignore any longer, due to the death of 31-year-old journalist Miwa Sado. Because of this scandal, the news channel which employed Sado has been harshly criticised, and the federal government has been pressured into devising new legislation to tackle the problem of serious overwork.

It's a problem that isn't just anecdotal either; hard data reveals that karōshi has a real, measurable human cost. A 2016 report examining instances of of karōshi cases determined that approximately 20 per cent of 10,000 surveyed Japanese workers said they worked at least 80 hours of overtime a month on average.

This statistic, in the context of Japan's alarmingly high suicide rate (21,897 people took their own lives in Japan in 2016; which, although an extremely high number, was still the lowest rate of suicides in 22 years) paints an extremely disturbing picture. But where does this extreme work ethic come from, and what steps can be taken to curtail it?

The root of the issue stems from the far east's inherent principles of confucianism, which stands in stark contrast to western society's more individualistic, self-centred culture. This system of ethics, founded by the eponymous Chinese philosopher Confucius, places extreme emphasis on the importance of the family, institutions and social harmony. It's like the old Vulcan saying "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," and in Japan, status and keeping up appearances are paramount.

Attached to the central tenets of confucianism is the concept of "saving-face", which here means maintaining social harmony and etiquette at the expense of one's self. Face-saving isn't an inherently bad concept; on the contrary, it encourages a sense of social duty that some would argue is sorely missing from western society.

However, if left unchecked then face-saving becomes an endless and exhausting game of one-upmanship, where authority remains unquestioned and workers take great care not to inconvenience their superiors or let down the company. This leads to a work culture where the extra hours slowly and slowly proliferate, until everyone in the office is more or less complicit in working 16 hours a day minimum, and where anyone not conforming is shamed.

Another reason for the unreasonable Japanese workload is the value their culture places on hierarchy. In Japan, great emphasis is placed on meritocracy via tiers, and because of the high and dense population, coupled with the extreme competitiveness in white collar environments, Japanese workers are forced to labour day and night in order to be eligible for any form of advancement. Not only this, but disloyalty is punished harshly.

Despite all the horror stories, it's eerie how normalised karōshi culture has become. The Japanese even have a term for their miserable office workers, who are dubbed "salarymen". A salaryman is expected to work long hours, and even when they clock out they are expected to join in after-work socialising and drinking with coworkers.

They're even expected to pay for their bosses' drinks, and are encouraged to discuss work outside of the office and to value their occupation above all else. Needless to say, this work-monomania is deeply unhealthy from a psychological point of view. Becoming a salaryman is a typical career choice for young men, and those who choose to forgo this form of work are regarded as inferior.

A Japanese salaryman walking to work.

Workers are even expected to work so hard, and such long hours, that in certain Japanese companies, it's considered good form for an employee to fall asleep at his desk or during a meeting. This is apparently a sign that the worker in question has been working hard.

Yet it's clear that, ever since the 70s, the salaryman culture has ended up doing far more harm than good. Although Japanese workers work far longer hours that their counterparts in other industrialised nations, they are actually far less productive than their foreign competitors despite their "live to work, don't work to live" attitude. In fact, many experts believe that cutting working hours and regulating overtime is key to saving Japan's flagging economy.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has urged Japanese corporations to begin the process of reform, through something he terms "hatarakikata kaikaku". A number of creative policies have been adopted in order to implement a profound change in national corporate culture. For example, some managers have begun to force employees to leave earlier in the day, and have even elected to turn out the lights in the office in a bid to make stubborn and devoted workers go home.

Other corporations have ruled that employees get advance permission for working late, or have implemented something called "Premium Friday" in which workers are encouraged to go home early on the last Friday of the month. However, these policies have not been entirely successful. It seems as though changing attitudes is a lot harder than Abe realised. A survey conducted in February of this year determined that a mere 3.7 per cent of employees surveyed actually left work early. The rest continued working as normal.

That said, these figures only come from those businesses who have bothered to implement these changes in the first place. Many have ignored hatarakikata kaikaku completely. A survey of over 5,000 employees determined that approximately 85 per cent had only heard of work reform in the media or from other companies, but hadn't experienced any change at their own place of work.

Real social change always takes time, yet it's alarming that so many Japanese men and women see no alternative to a life of drudgery and exploitation. I'm not trying to argue that the west is perfect, and in many areas Japan is a far cleaner, more conscientious society. But when it comes to work, Japanese culture is a veritable nightmare: a pressure cooker which pushes vulnerable people way past their boiling point.

In the west, we implicitly understand that real life is something that happens outside the suffocating confines of the cubicle, and that no job is more important than a person's mental wellbeing. It's only this writer's humble opinion, but it seems as though Japanese workers should be encouraged to embrace their vices; to be a little bit more selfish and a little bit lazier. It's for their own good.

Featured illustration by Egarcigu