If employers in the private and public sectors are not prepared to take adequate steps to reduce the threat to life from excessive workloads, Japanese judges seem increasingly ready to remind them of their responsibility. The nation’s courts are ruling with greater frequency in favor of the families of victims that overwork was indeed the cause of death for a husband, father or son. Japan’s higher courts are rejecting appeals by employers, who can seem determined to avoid any acknowledgment of the connection. Even more surprising in a society that attaches great importance to employee loyalty, judges are ruling that some suicides are clearly the result of extremely heavy workloads.

Even though the Japanese word for death from overwork, “karoshi,” has entered the English language and some experts believe the estimate of 10,000 such deaths each year in this country may be conservative, it has taken a long time for courts to act, and decisions in cases are not being reached quickly. The landmark ruling that made the change possible was the decision by the Supreme Court last March holding Dentsu Inc., Japan’s largest advertising agency, responsible for the death of a young employee who committed suicide as the result of depression caused by his heavy overtime schedule.

In the most recent ruling, the Okayama Branch of the Hiroshima High Court late last month decided in favor of a man’s widow that more than five years of overwork had caused the death of a local city government employee in Okayama Prefecture. Her husband succumbed to a fatal heart attack exactly 11 years ago, in November 1989. He was 42 years old at the time. Even though the victim sometimes worked past midnight as a designer on construction projects, the directors of the compensation fund for local government employees had argued his death was caused by illness, not work-related duties.

In another drawn-out case, Kawasaki Steel Corp., as the result of a decision by the same court, early last month finally agreed to pay substantial damages to the family of an employee who committed suicide in 1991. The company did so, however, only after losing its appeal against an earlier ruling by the Okayama District Court. The higher court noted that in the five months before he took his life, the 41-year-old victim had worked an average of five overtime hours each weekday and 11 hours on Saturdays and Sundays. In this instance, even the Labor Ministry’s Labor Insurance Appeal Committee agreed this was not a “normal” heavy workload and overturned a decision by a labor standards bureau that it was.

The karoshi threat has not diminished as a result of the economic slowdown and Japan’s high unemployment rate. If anything, it has worsened as a result of reduced corporate staffing and increased globalization: Workers in key industries are required to be in contact with overseas colleagues and customers long past regular working hours. Some businesses now operate on a virtual 24-hour cycle, but Japan has never embraced the concept of shifts for workers outside the manufacturing sector, even though doing so would reduce unemployment.

Instead, the Labor Ministry is promoting a well-intentioned new medical insurance scheme to help prevent death from overwork. (According to the ministry, using its standard definition established in 1995 only 90 people were officially recognized as karoshi victims in 1998, a figure many observers find low.) Under the ministry’s plan, originally scheduled to begin in the next fiscal year, workers exhibiting any of the four warning signs of obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels and high blood lipid (fat) levels would be eligible for free medical checkups to be covered by workers’ accident insurance. Labor Ministry officials say workers exhibiting abnormalities in all four areas are 35 times more likely to suffer fatal illnesses than are healthy workers.

The issue that is never tackled directly is the lack of sufficient paid leave or vacation time in Japan. At the height of this year’s summer season, an advisory panel to the ministry proposed the introduction of a two-week vacation system, suggesting that workers combine paid holidays with weekends and take their full leave time. In its report, the panel also called, with little success so far, for companies to allow long vacations at times other than the peak Bon and New Year seasons. The governing coalition even pushed two-week vacations as a campaign pledge before the June general election. Thirty years after the 1970 revision by the International Labor Organization of a convention requiring employers to grant three weeks of paid annual leave, at least two of which must be taken consecutively, Japan is no closer than ever to ratifying it.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.