The Work That Kills–“Karoshi”

Against the Current, No. 34, September/October 1991

Ben Watanabe

“KAROSHI” IS A Japanese word much used recently in English language newspapers and magazines, including those sold in Japan. It sounds strange, and actually represents avery painful phenomenon in Japanese society. Yet the word is not included in the latest editions of major Japanese dictionaries or other word books.

Just as “kaizen” (improvement) and “kamban system” are central words in the Japanese management system, “Karoshi”—a compound made up of “Karo” and “Shi,” meaning respectively “overwork” and “death” and when combined “sudden death due to overwork”—is another central emerging social phenomenon that is the other side of the coin.

In the history of the labor movement, workers fought to secure better working conditions and eradicate occupational injuries and hazards. Their efforts resulted in reducing occupational diseases, injuries and fatal accidents—caused by such factors as machine breakdowns, fractures or breaks in equipment, collapsing installations and inadequate safety equipment, often accompanied with hyper-intensive work.

Even though these efforts did not eliminate those problems completely, management and labor could in theory identify the “external” causes of such accidents and take necessary remedial measures. Unions in particular had to continue assuming the major responsibility of forcing management to assure a safer working environment.

More recently, new manufacturing technologies and production systems brought a spate of new “vocational diseases”: silicosis, black lung, white fingers (Raynaud’s disease), radiation disease and stiff neck/shoulde/arm syndrome. These conditions—which apparently differ from the traditional occupational diseases and injuries—are very serious for workers who suffer them because medical treatment for them is not yet available.

Yet in comparison to “Karoshi,” their cause and effect is much clearer. They occur in particular working environments or because of the existence of specific sources, so that we are able to eradicate or at least reduce their causes and sour.

The “Karoshi” phenomenon, on the other hand, may occur independently of particular work environments and conditions, whether on the production line or in office work. Factory automation is promoted simultaneously with office automation—with everything running “just-in-time”—and accordingly the expansion and intensification of work is decided at the complete will of the capitalists.

The cumulative effects, then, of continued physical and mental strain on workers exposed to hyper -intensive work and long working hours result in the deterioration of their health and, in the worst cases, the sudden death called “Karoshi.” The word “Karoshi” thus implies the technical difficulties involved in pinpointing the particular causes leading to death.

According to a survey conducted by Karoshi Dial 110—a citizen’s volunteer group—some 1,500 cases of alleged Karnshi had been reported by victims’ colleagues and families as of June 1990. A breakdown of the cases by the victims’ occupation is as follows:

Executives 4%
Managers 133%
Sales/Clerical Workers 18.2%
Engineers/Technical Workers 6.2%
Construction Workers 8.7%
Production Workers 10.0%
Truck Drivers 73% Building Maintenance and
Security Guards 15%
Civil Servants 5.2%
Other Occupations 24.8%

As these figures indicate, Karoshi may occur in almost any occupation.

Karoshi cases brought to court by victims’ families are increasing annually. But the courts have found employers liable and awarded damages in less than 5% of the suits. Plaintiffs lose because of technical difficulties in proving particular cause and effect relations for the deaths.

Furthermore, most employers who are charged do not concede the fact that Karoshi is a result of the cumulative strains on the victims due to hyper-intensive work and long working hours. Moreover, the Ministry of Labor—through an administrative circular—has been pressuring its regional Labor Standards Inspection Offices not to approve Karoshi cases as occupational deaths eligible for workers’ accident compensation insurance.

Ironically—according to the findings of a survey conducted by the Ministry of Labor in November 1987-82.9% of respondents (15,000 workers at 800 workplaces nationwide) complained that they were suffering from symptoms likely to cause sudden death (Karoshi); 67.3% felt physically exhausted; 717% complained of mental strain.

As long as Japanese management is widely accepted by industry all over the world, Karoshi will happen everywhere rather than being the result of a specifically Japanese fatal disease. Reportedly, a production worker on Toyota’s assembly line is required to make twenty motions every eighteen seconds–a total of 20,600 motions ina working day. This kind of inhuman work environment has been spreading from the production line to offices and to every workplace.

Working Hours In Japan Today

The overworking of the Japanese is often mentioned, especially by overseas observers. Countries embarrassed by the flood of Japanese products on their markets have repeatedly made accusations that the primary cause of their trade deficits is Japan’s long working hours.

Certainly it is true that Japan’s working hours are among the longest in the industrial capitalist countries; but since it is not simply a matter of working hours statistics, we must see in more detail what is the substance of the problem.

The typical work day of a Japanese salaried worker could be described as follows: He gets out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and then leaves home for his office at 6:30, while his children are still asleep. The average commuting time for workers who are living in the suburbs of Tokyo is one hour and twenty minutes.

In theory, such a worker is supposed to work from 9:00 am. to 5:00 p.m. But in practice, when he arrives at his office at 8:00 a.m., he usually finds that more than half of his colleagues have already started working without instructions from their managers.

At 5:00 p.m.—when the day’s official duties are done—hardly any workers leave the office to go back home. Most do overtime work every day until after 8:00 p.m. and sometimes as late as 10:00 p.m. Once or twice a week, a typical salaried employee arrives home after midnight. Thus he is not able to have supper with his family, except on holidays.

Increasingly, many of his colleagues stay once or twice a week at cheap “business hotels” near the office, in preparation for the next day’s work.

The taking of paid holidays has been markedly declining In 1980 only 61.2% of allowed paid holidays were used, and in 1988 the rate declined to 50%. This inadequate use of paid holidays can be attributed to the fact that although the work load is increasing, there are no corresponding increases in staff.

Endless Unpaid Overtime

Monthly working hour statistics published by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) indicate that monthly overtime work per worker is less than thirty hours. But in reality they do almost 100 hours overtime per month—approximately one hour in the morning and four hours in the evening of every working day.

Why this extreme discrepancy? It is because workers do not request payment for all their overtime work, and because employers—if they respect the Labor Standards Law and their own companies’ work rules—could not permit total payment for it.

Workers believe that if they request payment for all their overtime work their managers will glare at them and not recommend them for promotion. Most employers notify their employees not to ask for more than thirty hours of paid overtime work per month, and one rarely hears of trade unions that have filed complaints concerning these notifications. Thus there are more than 700 “phantom” or unpaid annual overtime hours per worker that never appear in the PMO’s statistics.

Then what about the work hours of factory workers? According to official statistics, factory workers do an average of 1,%4 hours overtime per year. As factories adopt the shift system, the number of hours per year for a given shift is pre-determined. But in most cases these factory workers have to work twenty to twenty-three hours overtime per month.

Unlike salaried workers, factory workers are in most cases fully paid for their overtime work Their annual working hours, including overtime work, exceed 2,200 hours. In 1988 factory workers took 65% of their paid holidays.

A brief international comparison: According to the 1988 statistics of the Labor Standards Bureau of the Ministry of Labor, the average number of work hours for all industries in japan was 2,168 hours (including 244 hours of overtime), as against the United States’ 1,949 (including 192 hours of overtime), Britain’s 1,947 (177 overtime hours) and West Germany’s 1,642(83 overtime hours).

Japan’s working hours were the longest, not even taking into consideration the “phantom” overtime work In the face of these excessive working hours, even Rengo [the dominant national union federation—ed.]—that very harmonious national center—has begun to ask for shorter working hours as its priority agenda, reversing its past tacit acceptance of longer hours.

Decisive action by workers against the greed of capital—as exemplified in Japanese management—can save us from this dehumanization.

September-October 1991, ATC 34