Although Japan achieved high economic growth by increasing its industrial productivity, the group-oriented work system that formed the basis of that development effectively sacrificed the rights of the individual, according to freelance journalist Satoshi Kamata.

Kamata, 64, claims that in order for Japan to regain social and economic power, the mentality favoring productivity and competition over an individual’s dignity must change.

Various measures need to be taken to achieve this goal, such as changing Japan’s education style, which has for too long emphasized competition, control and group-oriented action, he said.

Although the education ministry has moved to switch from group-oriented education to one that respects a student’s individual talent and personality, the policy has not yet taken root in schools, according to Kamata.

As an example of how people — even youth — have become shackled to values that place priority on efficiency and productivity, Kamata pointed to a time when he gave a lecture at a high school.

“One student said, ‘it is more efficient and easy to change the mentality of the bullied minority than that of the bullying majority,’ in order to solve the (bullying) problem,” Kamata said.

Such thinking increases stress in society and ignores the suffering of the weak, he claimed, adding that one group of victims of this mentality are workers driven to death from overwork.

The protracted economic downturn has forced many laborers to work longer and harder hours due to workforce cuts. Kamata believes this has led a number of people to suffer depression and commit suicide.

More than 30,000 people have taken their lives annually in the past few years, giving Japan one of the highest suicide rates in the world, according to the journalist.

“The country’s system, which increased productivity in exchange for accumulating social stress, is now collapsing,” Kamata said. “Both the nation and individuals have overworked themselves to achieve good results, only to reach a dead end.”

After graduating from high school in Aomori Prefecture, Kamata worked as a factory laborer in Tokyo and eventually became involved in labor union activities. After university, he got a job as writer of a steel industry newspaper. Later he wrote for an industry magazine.

Since publishing his first book as a freelance journalist in 1970, he has written some 100 titles on a wide range of social topics, including labor problems in various industries, nuclear power issues and education — all from the viewpoint of laborers and the socially weak.

“When I look at problems from such an angle, I can see the true nature of the issues,” Kamata said.

In 1999, Kamata wrote “Kazokuga Jisatsuni Oikomarerutoki” (“When a Family Member is Driven to Suicide”), which depicted the lives of people who killed themselves due to overwork and work-related stress and the difficulties of winning workers’ compensation insurance.

In order to prevent suicides stemming from overwork, Kamata claims that stiffer penalties should be imposed on companies who force employees to work to such an extent that they commit suicide. Labor-standards inspections offices must also conduct more thorough inspections of corporate working environments, he said.

In addition, labor unions should monitor overwork and create an environment in which workers can be more vocal about their problems, he maintained.

Another cause of the many suicides from overwork, Kamata observed, is the Japanese tendency to refrain from clarifying problems or injustices at the workplace.

Kamata believes that people “tend to think time will solve the problem.”

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