There was no nonsense about the 1990s in Japan. The economy had crashed, the bubble had burst. “The age of human relationships is over,” declared a corporate executive to Aera magazine in 1996, defending the cost-cutting layoffs then gathering speed. “This is the era of the discount store. The only sales criterion is: How cheaply are you selling?”

No nonsense then, no nonsense now. We’re in the same era — a different, more mature phase of it, maybe. Twenty years ago the issue was layoffs. Now it’s overwork. They are two faces of the same coin: cost-cutting. A hyper-competitive economy demands ruthlessness. Human relationships? Now as then: not extinct, but struggling.

Mass layoffs followed by a prolonged hiring freeze sum up a significant chunk of the economic history of the past two decades. Hiring has revived lately, unemployment is low, most workers are working — but at what? What kind of a life is your job giving you? Sometimes it gives you death; 93 cases of karōshi (death from overwork) have been officially recognized in Japan in fiscal 2015. They are extreme cases. Generally you don’t die from work. Stress, depression and chronic fatigue are not necessarily fatal.

“No matter how much I rest, I’m always tired,” a company employee in his 40s complains to Spa! magazine. Weekly Playboy magazine, polling 1,000 workers, found 59 percent of the 878 who routinely worked overtime were staggering “somewhat” if not “very much” under the burden of their jobs.

There’s a cute commercial jingle from the ’80s, considered very effective in its time, that would sound like mockery today — a measure of the sea change we’ve been through. It advertised an energy drink. While a young executive gulping it down fairly bursts with vigor and vitality, a spirited masculine voice belts out the punch line: “Can you fight 24 hours a day, businessman?” The expression on the executive’s face suggests 24 hours are hardly enough for him.

The term “burakku kigyō” (“black company”) was unknown in those halcyon days when work was life and not, as it often is now, life-threatening or life-degrading. “Black company” has no formal definition, but what it conveys is a degree of exploitation bordering on slavery. A recent survey by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) found one-quarter of 2,000 respondents — and one-third of men in their 20s and 30s — feel they work for black companies.

A black-company employee has this advantage over a slave: freedom to quit. Weekly Playboy introduces “A-san,” in whose case that freedom seems purely nominal. He’s 28 and works as an assembly line supervisor for a mid-size Tohoku food processing firm. His salary is roughly ¥200,000 a month. His work hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., meaning that’s what he gets paid for, though in fact he’s on the job from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., when business is relatively slow.

When it’s rushed, from July through November, 140 overtime hours a month are normal. Under governmental and economic pressure, companies are scrambling to reduce overtime. A-san’s employer is no exception. When labor bureau inspectors came by and demanded overtime be limited to 42 hours a month, the company promptly went into compliance mode. A-san laughs sardonically. “The only change,” he says, “is that now I only get paid for 42 hours. The workload is still the same.”

So why doesn’t he quit? He would, if he could find a better job. So far he hasn’t been able to. He’s supposed to be getting married soon but wonders if it’s possible under the present circumstances. “Human relationships” may have to wait.

Weekly Playboy’s coverage treats us to the somewhat absurd spectacle of employees sneaking in to their work stations at all hours, against company efforts to get them in and out within regulation time. The trouble with regulation time is that workloads are too much for it. If you don’t work overtime — paid or unpaid — you get blamed for not doing your job.

That’s the plight “Mr. B” finds himself in. He’s a 36-year-old restaurant manager employed by a chain of family restaurants. The head office — again, under labor bureau pressure — has imposed a 60-hour ceiling on monthly overtime, and checks computerized clocking-in to make sure employees observe it. Same rock, same hard place: You want to get out as badly as your employer wants to get you out, but only a reduced workload can make reduced working hours realistic, and that reduced workload is not forthcoming, so B-san routinely starts his day two hours before clocking in and finishes it two hours after.

It gets worse as you get older, says Spa! Playboy’s targeted readership is younger than Spa!’s, whose subjects are in their 40s. It’s a tough age. Experience has multiplied your responsibilities, which seems fitting, but body and brain are starting to show their age, growing ever so slightly less resilient than they used to be, to say nothing of the onslaught of domestic worries like financing the kids’ college education and seeing parents through their early stages of elderly infirmity. It’s enough to keep anyone awake nights.

Wakeful nights are a big part of the story. In your 40s especially, says Spa!, sleep quality deteriorates. You’re just about to drift off when thoughts invade the brain and get it churning: the mistake you made today, the presentation you must make tomorrow, the blundering or insolent subordinate you’ll have to deal with somehow, sometime. Has a client sent an email? Should you check? The 24/7 life is pervasive, and hard to turn off. A drink seems called for — a soothing, calming drink. Wrong, say the experts. Drinking at bedtime is the worst thing you can do. You’ll sleep, but not well. What, then? Best, says a clinician the magazine speaks to, is to talk your worries over with someone. Friend? Loved one? Human relationships again. If you have any.

Matsuri Takahashi has been much in the news lately, nearly a year after her death. She was a 24-year-old freshman employee of the advertising giant Dentsu whose suicide last Christmas Day was officially recognized in September as karōshi. Shukan Bunshun magazine described her working life as an endless round of 12-hour days seasoned with insults and innuendoes from superiors persistent enough to qualify as power harassment. Hours before her death, the magazine says, she emailed her mother: “Work is unbearable. Life is unbearable.”

Would a friend have helped Takahashi? Maybe — if she’d had time for friendship.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey Into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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