National / Social Issues

Tokyo Olympic stadium worker's suicide recognized as being related to overwork


The labor standards authorities have determined the suicide of a 23-year-old man who worked at Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium construction site stemmed from overwork, and his family was eligible for government compensation.

Hiroshi Kawahito, a lawyer representing the victim’s family, said Tuesday the inspection office determined that the man’s long overtime hours, totaling 190 hours and 18 minutes in the month before his suicide in early March, caused him to develop mental illness.

Tokyo’s Shinjuku Labor Standards Inspection Office made the decision Friday, less than three months after the man’s bereaved family filed for the recognition.

The speedy decision “reflects consideration by the authorities of the social impact of the case,” Kawahito told a news conference.

“We strongly urge the prime contractor, the Olympics and Paralympics organizing committee, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and other parties concerned not to repeat such a tragedy,” he said.

The man was an employee of Sanshin Corp., a subcontractor taking part in the project to build the stadium, set to be the main venue of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Kawahito said the worker joined the subcontractor in April 2016. He was involved in ground-improvement work at the site since December.

“We are relieved to see our son’s hard work recognized,” his parents said in a statement. “We sincerely hope that the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will be held safely.”

Sanshin said the company “is deeply remorseful and will make every effort to improve its work environment.”

Work at the new stadium has been intense because of a delayed start in construction. An earlier stadium plan was scrapped due to spiraling costs and unpopular design. On any given day, about 1,000 workers are at the project led by construction giant Taisei Corp.

The death of the worker captured national attention in July when his family asked the government to certify him as a victim of karōshi, or death from overwork. The body of the man was found in the central Japan mountains in April, weeks after he disappeared, with a suicide note saying he was “physically and mentally pushed to the limit.”

Government and company officials say they have since kept close tabs on overwork and taken measures to improve the working environment.

In late September, Tokyo labor officials who investigated nearly 800 subcontractors of Taisei, found illegal overwork at nearly 40 companies. Workers at 18 companies did overtime exceeding 80 hours per month, and several of them exceeding 150 hours.

The construction sector is excluded from the government’s planned tightening of overtime limits for the time being. Last year, construction was one of the most karōshi-prone sectors in Japan, with 16 victims acknowledged by the government.

The worker was the latest among recent high-profile cases.

Last Friday, Tokyo’s summary court ordered Dentsu Inc. to pay a ¥500,000 ($4,500) fine over the 2015 overwork suicide of Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old employee at the advertising giant. After doing 100 hours of overtime a month, Takahashi developed depression and jumped from a company dormitory to her death. The meager fine angered many who sympathized with Takahashi and her mother, who has since become an anti-karōshi activist.

Also last week, NHK revealed its reporter who died of heart failure four years ago was certified as a karōshi victim in May 2016. Miwa Sato, then 31, was covering national elections. She was reportedly still holding her cellphone when found collapsed at home in the summer of 2013. NHK pledged to prevent future recurrence of the tragedy.

While the labor standards law sets for protections for most workers, it also allows an exception that’s often used as a loophole allowing companies to establish voluntary ceilings for overtime, making the law toothless.