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Working harder in a bid to save labor is proving exhausting

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

The utopia of utopias is “Utopia” by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535). Its best feature is leisure. There are no idle nobles; everyone works. A burden shared is a burden lightened. Utopians “do not wear themselves out with perpetual toil from morning to night, as if they were beasts of burden.” They work their daily six hours, then go on to more important things — not “luxury and idleness” (which are forbidden) but the pursuit of culture.

Five hundred years later, there are no utopias. Japan certainly is not one. Japan works itself to death, to depression. Karōshi (death from overwork) is a Japanese contribution to the global language, increasingly understood worldwide. Utsubyō (depression) isn’t, but is a recurring theme within the country. Much of it is work-related.

Spa magazine this month finds karōshi evolving. In Japan until the late 1990s, as in Europe still, most victims were blue-collar workers. Now they’re managers. Social conventions can fool you into wearing executive status proudly. It’s a trap, says Spa. The long recession that began in the ’90s spawned deep “restructuring” — mass layoffs, reduced hiring. Who picked up the slack? Managers, who were scarcely then, and are little more now, protected by labor laws limiting working hours.

The worst cases are hellish indeed. A 45-year-old man in the publishing industry recalls for Spa the suicide of his boss three years ago. It climaxed two years of seven-day weeks and 15-hour days. “I wonder now,” he says, “whether I could have done something for him” — a regret sharpened, no doubt, by promotion that exposes him to similar abuse.

A 42-year-old man in pharmaceuticals noticed one day that a certain executive was no longer there. Nothing was said, and perhaps not much thought. Noses were to the grindstone. “Years later,” he tells Spa, “I was drinking with my boss and the subject happened to come up. The man had gone home one day and hanged himself.” He too, apparently, had been worked to death. The less said the better, the company must have thought at the time.

“The karōshi we know is the tip of the iceberg,” says Emiko Teranishi, who runs a support group for relatives of karōshi victims. She herself is one. Her husband killed himself 23 years ago. The National Police Agency, she says, identifies nearly 2,000 deaths a year as work-related, though only about 90 officially qualify for compensation.

Most depressives stop short of suicide. It’s something you live with. A health and labor ministry survey in 2014 counted 1.1 million workers who consider themselves depressed — up from just over 400,000 in 1999. The pursuit of happiness seems in reverse gear. President magazine in June presented a typical case.

“Saori” had been working — along with 37 percent of Japan’s workforce — part-time: long hours, little pay. She was 29. Last November, she got a break. An employment agency introduced her to a full-time job. Wonderful, she thought, foreseeing a living wage, bonuses, benefits.

Three months later, a doctor declared her eligible for paid medical leave. Depression.

So soon?

“I keep my staff in line with my fist,” she says her boss told her.

She’d leave the house at 7 a.m. and get home past midnight, lunch eaten on the run. How much work can you stand, when you hate your job? She hated hers. She was in personnel, forced to interview job applicants and tell them what a wonderful company it was. A few weeks of this and she couldn’t face the thought of boarding a packed office-bound train in the morning. One day she froze at the door. Daily life had paralyzed her.

Recovering her mobility, she proceeded not to work but to a clinic.

Work should be demanding, challenging, even taxing. An employer has the right to expect its money’s worth — without, presumably, turning death and mental illness into occupational hazards.

It’s not only private enterprise. Japan’s teachers are said to be the busiest in the developed world, too strained by extra-curricular responsibilities to give students their best. Doctors are frequently described as working to and beyond the limits of exhaustion — sometimes without pay, as Kyodo News reported in June. Shukan Gendai magazine ran a story in June titled, “This is how frightening hospitals are.” Enter at your own risk, is the implied message. The problems raised include excessive treatment, overprescription and misdiagnosis. The alleged culprits are money hunger and ineptitude. Overwork is not mentioned. Maybe it should have been.

In “Utopia,” “the main purpose of their whole economy is to give each person as much time free from physical drudgery as the needs of the community will allow, so that he (or she) can cultivate his (or her) mind — which they regard as the secret of a happy life.”

What is the main purpose of our economy? One plausible answer to that question would echo More’s: “as much free time from physical drudgery” as possible.

The push-button ease that whisks us through our daily round gives us a means undreamed of by Utopians. We’d dazzle them, if they could see us. Then we’d astonish them. Technologically empowered to this degree, and we’re still drudging?

Somehow, we are. The more labor we save, the more we labor to save labor. Moreover, the more labor we save, the more we resent the labor that remains. It spurs us to even more intense labor to save labor.

Another common Japanese word that may one day go global is mendokusai (too much trouble). It keeps surfacing, and in the oddest contexts.

Last February, the Asahi Shimbun reported on the expanded use of the microwave oven. It instanced a certain brand of instant sausage. The sausages came in a plastic bag, which you tossed into boiling water. Three minutes later you sat down to your meal. “Mendokusai,” said consumers, causing the manufacturer to redesign the plastic bag for microwave compatibility, reducing three minutes’ preparation to 40 seconds — at the cost, one wonders, of how much overtime labor?

Even love, once a solace from burdens, is now a burden, as a recent Cabinet Office survey suggests. Nearly 40 percent of respondents — men and women in their 20s and 30s — have no desire for a romantic relationship. Why not? “Mendokusai,” is the most frequent answer.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”