What is Karoshi and why is the Japanese government involved?
In the last week the Japanese government has taken the extraordinary step of naming and shaming 300 firms which it accuses being guilty of risking ‘Karoshi’.
So what is Karoshi? Well it’s defined by Google as “(in Japan) death caused by overwork or job-related exhaustion.” Karoshi has become the focus of national attention after it was blamed for the death of a young man, Joey Tocnang, when in April 2014 the 27-year-old trainee at a casting company in central Japan died of heart failure at his firm’s dormitory.
It hasn’t just been death by exhaustion that has hit the national headlines though as Karoshi was blamed for the suicide of a young man in 2015 when, after being forced to work up to 122 hours overtime per week, he took his own life as the stress overwhelmed him.
The terribly sad stories of both men have contributed to a growing sense of national outrage that young men and women are being exploited so horrifically and as a consequence the name-and-shame tactic is part of efforts by the government of Shinzo Abe to shake-up labour laws in a bid to give employees greater protection, including overtime caps.
The list itself contains the names and details of 334 companies who have been warned or fined for unethical working practices including forcing its workers to take excessive overtime and other violations between last October and this March.
In October last year labour standards authorities ruled that Tocnang’s death was directly related to the long hours of overtime he was forced to perform, a reflection of outdated attitudes towards work that Japan’s government has warned puts 20% of the entire workforce at risk of death from overwork, or karoshi.
According to The Guardian hundreds of deaths related to overwork – from strokes, heart attacks and suicide – are reported every year in Japan, along with a host of serious health problems – symptoms, critics say, of the demands placed on workers who routinely work long hours and take short holidays. A white paper on karoshi found that despite attempts by some firms to establish a better work-life balance, Japanese workers still spend much longer hours in the office than those in other countries. According to the paper, 22.7% of companies polled between December 2015 and January 2016 said some of their employees logged more than 80 hours of overtime each month – the official threshold at which the prospect of death from work becomes serious.
As the issue faces rising outrage in the country we should perhaps take notice across Britain as stuttering wage growth has encouraged more people to work themselves into ill-health. For now, though, the Japanese government continues its efforts to quell a wholly avoidable death toll.