Puzzling Karoshi Phenomenon

Puzzling Karoshi Phenomenon

Japan is today a leading industrial nation that plays in the big league along with the world's most industrialized countries. Yet this has come at a price. The Japanese work environment has increasingly become so intense that the word Karoshi has come into Japan's national dictionary. In the 1970s, the word Karoshi was first invented. When translated literally, Karoshi simply means ‘death by overwork'. In reality, Karoshi represents the idea of death by overwork or what may be referred to as a sudden-death occupational mortality.

Some major medical causes of this puzzling phenomenon are stroke and heart attacks due to stress, long work hours or a starvation diet. At times, Karoshi may also involve a situation where employees commit suicide as a result of overwork. The first case of Karoshi was in 1969. Then, a 29-year-old man, who worked in Japan's largest newspaper's shipping department, died after suffering a sudden heart attack.

By 1978, there was a consistent but disturbing pattern of people developing heart failure and fatal strokes that could be traced directly to overwork. This attracted the attention of both scholars and government agencies for the first time. By 1982, the term Karoshi came into popular public usage. Indeed, a book dealing with the novel issue was first published that year.

In time, the term Karoshi quickly emerged to become part of the Japanese public life. This was especially so in the mid-1980s at the time of the famous ‘bubble economy.' At this time, several high-ranking corporate executives who were in their prime years suffered the ravages of sudden death without ever showing any previous signs of illness. Japanese officials now recognized the Karoshi phenomenon as a significant menace afflicting people in the workforce. This prompted Japan's ministry of Labour to publish consistent statistics on Karoshi beginning in 1987.

These measures were aimed at helping to decrease the number of deaths resulting from Karoshi, but the effect was to take some time before anything positive came out. Even as recently as July 2013, yet another employee was reported to have died from this sad phenomenon. Miwa Sado, the 31-year-old woman, who was a journalist, died straight from heart failure. The woman had logged in a startling 158 hours of overtime, in a single month, at his employer's NHK news network. It was not until October 2017 that Sado's death was officially registered by the government as a classic Karoshi case.

Meanwhile, around the same time, a 24-year-old worker of the Japanese advertising company, Dentsu, tragically jumped to her death from a balcony in the company dorm room. She had lived in this dormitory, working 100-hours in a month. This apparently led her to commit suicide. A month after the horrible incident, Tadashi Ishii, the Dentsu CEO and president, was forced to resign for this embarrassing culpability.

Work Culture

The concept of karoshi may well be traced back to the days of World war II. At that time, when the country was freshly war-torn, Japanese Premier, Shigeru Yoshida, made it a top priority to build Japan's tattered economy. As part of this initiative, the government prompted the major corporations to give their workers life-long job security as long as these proved to be loyal to the hilt.

Despite the fact that the big plan was meant to boost the Japanese economy, the Japanese workers were compelled to give up on their work-life balance in order to achieve this. Yes, the plan worked to catapult Japan into a leading industrialized state but all these came at a huge price. Within just a decade of the commencement of the government's official ‘work-to-death' policy, many cases of Karoshi started to happen. Many workers were apparently ready to sacrifice their family and personal time to make a good impression with the bosses and boost loyalty ties with their employers. They wanted to keep their jobs at any cost. It was not long before this situation started taking a toll on the Japanese workers who wanted to build the national economy at any cost.

Most of these workers regularly spent long hours in the office, suffering from sleep deprivation. The burden of meeting the demands of the employers started taking a toll on them, prompting many to get into suicide. Many others may not have died, but they suffered the ravages of stroke and heart attack. In time, the fatalities were clearly recognized as job-relate cases. The phenomenon, overtime, came to be labelled as ‘occupation sudden-death'.