National / Social Issues

Manga on overwork hell goes viral in wake of Dentsu suicide reports

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

After the Christmas 2015 suicide of an employee at ad giant Dentsu Inc. was reported as an official case of karoshi (death from overwork) this month, making headlines nationwide, a manga portraying the mindset of those worn out on the job went viral earlier this week and had been retweeted over 131,000 times as of Friday.

The author, an illustrator who goes by the name Kona Shiomachi, says that when people are overworked, they aren’t capable of making rational decisions, including on whether to change jobs, and embark on a vicious circle of negative thinking that, in some cases, leads to suicide.

The title of the comic, which went online Tuesday, is “Mukashi Sonokimo Nainoni Ukkari Jisatsu Shikakemashita,” which can loosely be translated as “I was about to unintentionally commit suicide.”

In one scene, Shiomachi depicts a dangerous moment when she was waiting at the station for the train.

“If I move one step further, I wouldn’t have to go to work tomorrow,” she thought.

Though she was able to stop herself, Shiomachi, who had been working roughly 90 to 100 hours of overtime a month, said suicide seemed “such a brilliant idea.”

“It’s almost impossible for workers to take a break or leave the company” when they are too stressed out, she said in a written response to this reporter’s questions. “When you’re exhausted beyond the limit, your mind avoids thinking about that.”

She declined to provide her age or real name.

“When you work over 100 hours of overtime, you won’t have time to be with your family, friends or lover, or even time to enjoy your hobby,” she said. “Then, you start to think, ‘I don’t know what I’m working for,’ which leads to thinking ‘I don’t know why I’m living this life.’ ”

At the time, Shiomachi was a graphic designer at a small advertising company making flyers and posters. Although she enjoyed her job, the workload was tough. Clients sometimes demanded her attention at 3 a.m. or wanted a job completed within six hours.

“The company was giving us . . . an impossible workload. The assumption was that we all would work at least 15 hours a day,” she said.

But according to Shiomachi, that’s the norm in the design industry.

She urged those who are worn out from work to seek medical attention or sleep as much as possible. If that’s not an option, due to excessive stress or mental strain, they should sit down in a public area, such as the floor of a train platform, until someone calls an ambulance.

According to a labor ministry white paper on karoshi published earlier this month, 22.7 percent of workers at 1,700 businesses surveyed were working more than 80 hours of overtime a month, the official threshold for karoshi cases.

What’s more, nearly 2,000 of the 24,000 or so reported suicides in 2015 were work-related, according to a police report.

Lawyer Daisuke Sakuma of Tsumakoi Law Office, an expert on labor issues, said the government should put a cap on overtime to ensure a safe working environment.

The Labor Standards Law “does not have a cap for overtime. The problem won’t be solved unless the government (legislates) a cap,” Sakuma said.

He said it is normal for even major companies like Dentsu to force employees toward doing 100 hours of overtime per month, and that some of it goes unrecorded, meaning it is not unreported to the local labor bureau.

The case of 24 year-old Matsuri Takahashi reported this month was the second suicide of a Dentsu employee to be recognized as work-related, following Ichiro Oshima, who was also 24, in 1991. In addition, the 2013 death of a 30-year-old male Dentsu employee from illness was quitely ruled as induced by overwork earlier this year.

“After the anti-karoshi law took effect, the labor bureau . . . formed a special team to seek measures against overwork,” he said.

“They should conduct stricter crackdowns by forming an undercover team. Although the government is decreasing the number of public servants, the labor bureau should organize such a team with enough staff.”