National / Social Issues

Grieving parents on a mission to teach students about tragic results of overwork

Grieving parents urge youths to put their lives over their livelihoods

Kyodo

Parents of young workers who died or killed themselves due to overwork have been traveling across Japan to speak about these tragic deaths to students.

The encounters are sponsored by the government, which is seeking to tackle the widespread problem of excessive working hours.

“My son had a strong sense of responsibility and worked past midnight for half of each month. He once worked for 37 hours without a rest,” Michiyo Nishigaki said of her son, a systems engineer at a Kanagawa Prefecture information technology company who died in January 2006 at the age of 27 after overdosing on an antidepressant.

“Why did he have to die so young?” asked Nishigaki, who hails from Kobe.

The problem of overwork came under renewed scrutiny after a 24-year-old employee at the nation’s largest advertising agency, Dentsu Inc., committed suicide in December 2015 due to excessive overwork.

Last September, the Tokyo labor standards inspection office recognized Matsuri Takahashi’s suicide as a case of death from overwork after finding that she had worked 105 hours of overtime per month — well over the 70-hour cap set in a labor-management agreement.

Takahashi’s suicide cast light on Japan’s widespread corporate culture of forcing employees to demonstrate loyalty by working long hours even at the risk of their lives.

Under a law put into effect in 2014, the government is responsible for crafting measures to prevent overwork-related deaths and suicides. As part of its steps, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry started last September inviting the families of victims as well as labor lawyers to share their experiences, mainly with junior high and high school students.

By March, the ministry had conducted 87 such sessions at schools across Japan and plans to hold about 200 during the fiscal year through next March.

“Telling young people what happened to my son is painful for me. But I’d like to tell them how meaningless it would be for workers to work at the expense of their lives,” said Nishigaki, who has been speaking mainly at schools in the Kansai region.

In fiscal 2015, the labor ministry recognized 472 people as suffering depression and other mental illnesses as a result of work-induced stress, qualifying them for government benefits.

Workers in their 20s accounted for 18 percent, while those in their 30s made up 29 percent of the total.

In the wake of Japan’s chronic manpower shortage, businesses tend to assign key tasks to young employees, even those fresh out of college, putting them in stressful work situations.

“Young employees should know before they enter the workforce how to protect themselves if they are forced to work under severe conditions,” said lawyer Hiroshi Kawahito, who represents the family of Matsuri Takahashi.

In early February, attorney Toshimasa Yamashita visited Kaijo Junior High School in Tokyo to teach students how to cope with work-related problems they may encounter in the future.

Yamashita asked about 30 students who attended his lecture how many hours a day employees are allowed to work under Japanese law.

Most students answered correctly, citing eight hours as mandatory daily working hours.

However, they could not answer when asked how many hours of overwork could affect a worker’s health.

Yamashita explained that the government sees monthly overtime reaching 80 hours as possibly resulting in serious health problems.

The lawyer then asked them, “Do you know how many hours your parents work every day?”

A male student answered: “My father often comes home after 10 p.m. Although he doesn’t look so exhausted, he may only try not to look so.”

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