Death from overwork emerging as 'reality' in Japan

January 07, 1991|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Kazuo Fujii paid for a lifestyle of overindulgence in October, when months of sustained excesses forced him into a hospital for treatment of ulcers and gastritis.

What Mr. Fujii had overindulged in was his job.

For three months last fall, while Americans fumed at Japan's indecision over joining the forces facing Iraq in the Persian Gulf, Mr. Fujii headed the Self-Defense Agency bureau that had the hopeless task of shepherding through the Diet, or parliament, a bill to meet President Bush's demands that Japan send personnel as well as money to the Middle East.

He frequently worked around the clock, sleeping in his office when he got the chance. He never took a day off from mid-August to late October.

Then, after losing a monthlong struggle in the Diet, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu gave up on the bill, and Mr. Fujii went to the hospital.

Overwork on Mr. Fujii's scale is a widespread condition here, one that many commentators believe has grown worse rather than better as Japan has built itself into an economic power.

More and more commentators speak of it as one of the little-discussed keys to Japan's postwar "economic miracle."

No one claims to have reliable statistics, but all hands agree that at least tens of thousands of Japanese become seriously ill from overwork every year.

Possibly thousands, according to lawyers and some doctors who deal with the consequences, die of overwork every year. In recent years, that kind of death has come to have a name, "karoshi."

For decades, the demands Japan's company and government bureaucracies put on white-collar workers went undiscussed in public, as if taboo in a country that felt a need to demand the utmost of its citizens while rebuilding from the war.

In a new pamphlet, "Karoshi," the organizers of a hot line for family members of its victims described death from overwork as, "the other reality behind the economic success of Japan."

One government agency's sense of how far the problem reaches became public last year when the Fund for Local Government Employees' Labor Injuries Compensation tried unsuccessfully to fight off a claim by a junior high school teacher. The teacher fought for seven years to win compensation after being incapacitated by a stroke while working months of 100-hour weeks to fill in for a missing vice principal.

"If everyone who becomes sick due to work-related fatigue could collect compensation," the fund's lawyers warned the Kochi District Court that "there would be no limit to the fund's liabilities."

Underlying the problem is a set of on-the-job norms that demand an ethic of self-sacrifice far beyond the workaholism sometimes seen in Europe and North America.

In a country where white-collar workers seldom have two-day weekends and commonly have to spend two or more hours a day standing on crowded commuter trains, companies often demand that they also arrive for work early to sing songs and do calisthenics with fellow workers.

The culture of self-sacrifice has produced a milieu in which millions of Japanese salarymen and middle-managers -- more than half, by most poll results -- refuse to take as much as half of their paid vacation.

In response to questions in one poll, 55 percent said they gave up holidays for fear of the work that would pile up in their absence.

That poll, conducted by the Fukoku Life Insurance Co., showed that 80 percent of the men it covered felt overworked and 43 percent believed that overwork might kill them.

A majority of the same men who said they feared they might be working themselves to death also said that they expected to go on giving up days off.

Companies routinely assume that workers will willingly put in unpaid overtime, and many company lawyers use the "volunteer" argument as a defense when relatives demand compensation for karoshi deaths.

The absence of firm statistics is further complicated by demands of hard-pressed managers that employees falsify their time sheets to keep them in line with legal limits.

Employees often mention this to their relatives, but they seldom resist. So the practice has become a public issue only gradually, as families of karoshi victims have begun to file claims and offer testimony.

Even in recorded work time, the average Japanese put in 2,150 hours in 1989, the average American, 1,924; and the average French worker, 1,643.

The absence of statistics is also the result, in part, of hard-line resistance by companies, which frequently succeed in fighting off attempts by family members to get work records of employees whose deaths are suspected cases of karoshi.

That has been reinforced for decades by Labor Ministry rules that serve to make the cases, which lawyers say are inherently hard to document, even harder to win.

Until 1987, the Labor Ministry would take into consideration only the job burdens imposed on the worker during the 24 hours up to his death or illness.

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