Japan’s most honorable form of death


“Well, you don’t have a fever,” the doctor told me. Next, he looked down my throat.

“So, desu ne,” he said.

“Do you have a cough?” he asked me.


He took out his stethoscope and listened to my breathing. “So, desu ne,” he said.

“Any difficulty breathing?”


Finally he said, “Amy, what did you do yesterday?”

“I have no idea,” I said. That was his first clue.

“What about Sunday?” he said.

Things started coming back to me. Yes, Sunday. I was on the shinkansen coming back from a business trip. Like all good salarymen, I was drinking a beer and eating dried squid. When suddenly, I got the chills.

I went to bed early, then woke up at 5 a.m. Monday, a national holiday, to meet an editing deadline. Finished by 8 a.m., then answered 10 telephone calls, three faxes and 147 e-mails.

Had lunch with my cat. Planted one petunia.

Did some more computer work, climbed Mount Fuji, and signed up for the 2008 Olympic bobsled team. Or something equally important, although I can’t remember exactly what it was. But it was really important, I’m sure of it, or else I would have planted another petunia.

“And, Tuesday?”

Woke up at 6 a.m. — overslept! Answered e-mails from people in Western countries who actively construct hundreds of e-mails while I sleep. At 10 a.m., a band of 4- to 6-year-olds from the neighborhood came to my house for an impromptu discussion of the English language. Sang the ABCs. Sang the ABCs. Sang the ABCs.

The fourth round of ABCs — the rap version — was interrupted by the screeching sound of the fax: nine pages. “Amy-san, we know you are very busy, but would you edit this ASAP?”

Planted another petunia for lunch. Damn, my garden is looking good!

In the afternoon, I wrote up some proposals, contacted some reviewers for my book to be published this summer, and walked the 1,000-km Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage, or something equally important. In the evening, I prepared for the interview I have with a TV station coming out tomorrow to do a spot on this new company I started in January. But through all this, I’ve still had the chills.

“Have you considered taking a vacation?” said the doctor.

“Oh yes,” I said. “I was going to take a 10-day vacation to Canada last Tuesday, but I missed my flight. To catch the next flight required paying for a brand-new ticket, so I just came home and planted another petunia instead.”

“So desu ne,” said the doctor. “You seem to be suffering from overwork.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

“Your body is trying to tell you to take a rest. You need to go home, stay in bed and get some rest.”

I thanked the doctor and walked home to fulfill his prescription of less work and more rest.

On my way home, I ran into Amano-san, who said: “Isogashii, desu ne. Ii koto desu!” (“You’re busy, aren’t you? Busy is good!”). As I opened the door to my house, my neighbor said, “Amy, isogashii desu ne.”

I sighed, even though I knew she was just trying to compliment me.

The next day, after canceling my university classes for the week as part of my recovery program, I decided to go outside and plant just one more petunia. After all, the chills had finally subsided.

“Wow Amy, you’re planting flowers even though you’re so busy!” my neighbor complimented me.

“Actually, not so busy today. I’m supposed to be teaching. The doctor told me to get some rest.”

“Well then,” she said, “while you’re at it, maybe you should pull all that tall grass on the side of the house.”

Now you know why “karoshi,” or death from overwork, is so prevalent in Japan.

Don’t let yourself become a victim.