Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Japanese workers fight against karoshi, death from overwork

Scott North looks at the history of the anti-karoshi movement and its latest victory

September 16, 2014
8 min read

2990607547_d12e35c6e6_zA worker sleeps at Roppongi station in Tokyo. Photo: Coal Miki/Flikr

After more than 30 years of grassroots activism, Japan’s Diet (parliament) has passed a much-needed law promoting countermeasures against karoshi, death from overwork. Today more than 2000 applications for workers’ compensation or survivors’ benefits are filed annually by workers or families seeking state recognition for death, disability or depression caused by overwork. Experts say these claims are just the tip of the iceberg: as many as 8000 of Japan’s roughly 30,000 annual suicides are thought to be work-related. The true toll is probably much higher, since 10 per cent of the male labour force work 60-plus-hour weeks under the same conditions as those who die or become mentally unstable. It is also estimated that there are more than 10,000 non-suicide karoshi deaths each year.

Family life, personal life, leisure and community involvement are all victimized by overwork. This problem is not unique to Japan but the tentative character of the new law is. Instead of placing strict limits on work hours or penalizing companies that violate work hours laws, the focus of the legislation is on gathering statistics, compiling reports, providing counseling for workers and support for civil society groups fighting the problem. Nevertheless, it is a significant development that bears further watching.

The origins of karoshi and trends in Japan’s political economy

In the post-World War II era, Japan’s courts have repeatedly established employer responsibility for employment stability as essential to social order. Dismissals of regular employees are rare and allowed only when strict conditions are met. At the same time, these regular, full-time (so-called ‘permanent’) workers are obliged to obey whatever orders they are given, no matter how onerous.

Originally defined as circulatory disease brought on by stress, karoshi (literally ‘overwork death’) was first diagnosed in the late 1970s after the OPEC oil crisis forced the first major post-war restructuring of Japanese industry and employment relations. Since then, increasingly competitive and intense work conditions have proliferated and companies have hired more irregular workers to meet the demands of globalization. Today, irregular workers account for approximately 40 per cent of the labour force, up from 10 per cent in 1990.

Whilst the increase in irregular workers caused total per capita work hours to decline, work hours for regular employees remained at 53 per week, the same as in the 1960s. Yet these figures do not include unpaid ‘service overtime’, which comprises the bulk of overtime hours worked in Japan. Several studies indicate that unpaid hours have increased in the last 20 years, as firms attempt to increase productivity and profits.

Effectively, the division of labour between regular and irregular workers created a basis for discrimination at work, with regular workers obliged to work longer and harder to justify and maintain their elite status and also to carry the additional burden created by the irregulars, generally contract workers who, in principle, do not work overtime or put in long hours.

Thus occurred a shift away from organization-centred management that trained and treated workers as the most important corporate resource toward a market pricing style of management. The right to paternalistic benevolence that Japanese workers have traditionally expected from employers has gradually been replaced by American-style neoliberal relationships and the normalization of overwork.

Although the first wave post-oil shock corporate rationalization was met with widespread strikes they were primarily appeals for ‘status justice’, for indulgence due to workers under traditional morality. As enterprise unions dependent on employers and concerned primarily with preserving the jobs of their members, their claims did not derive from legal rights but rather stressed this dependence and subordination. After all, employers continued to use the rhetoric of corporate familism to justify the sacrifices demanded of regular workers. Male workers were expected to face adversity in the process of becoming mature, full-fledged members of their corporate communities.

Yet as abuses soared and medical science established links between overwork, stress, and cardiovascular disease and depression, employees or their surviving families became aware that their traditional ‘right to benevolence’ was not being honoured and social superiors were failing to meet their social obligations. To insist on rights rather than accepting one’s situation is ordinarily considered morally inferior in Japan. The one permissible justification for challenging the social hierarchy, for turning personal trouble into a social problem, is the death of a subordinate. With professional help from labour activists, a growing number of families who were victimized by overwork deaths and disabilities sought redress through the labour ministry and the courts from the late 80s onward.

140719夏の一泊学習交流会in御殿荘

Labour activists, lawyers, and families who have lost members to karoshi gather in Kyoto to discuss anti-koroshi legislation at a study and fellowship meeting in July 2014.

History of alliances, actions and demands of the anti-karoshi movement

Labour lawyers and occupational medical specialists led the effort. With help from allies in the small number of radical unions, leftist political parties, academics and the media, they saw karoshi as an issue that could mobilize workers and raise social consciousness about the decline of traditional morality in employment relations and Japan’s failure to translate national wealth into a standard of living worthy of an advanced industrial society. Karoshi showed that even minimum standards of employer care were not being met and pointed to the weakness of Japanese regulatory regimes.

Advocates for worker rights thus pursued a two-front strategy of litigation and legislation. Litigation came first and is ongoing. Cases recruited via a telephone hotline were carefully vetted and those that were accepted were taken pro bono. Early successes were publicized as moral victories. Yet plaintiffs never said they were pursuing monetary compensation. Rather, they emphasized their desire for employers to reflect upon their conduct and make sure that no further karoshi deaths occurred.

Success bred success. Labour ministry or judicial recognition of cases as eligible for compensation (denials by the ministry were often reversed in subsequent civil suits) caused the ministry to gradually accept karoshi as expressing a real cause and effect relationship. In 1994 the word ‘karoshi’ appeared in a government document for the first time and official statistics began to be kept. In tandem with new medical knowledge, the PR efforts of the relatively small group of activists promoted transformation of ministry standards for recognizing overwork-related illness as a kind of labour accident worthy of compensation.

Initially, Japan’s workers’ compensation law was the product of an industrial consciousness that envisioned injury resulting primarily from machine accidents or falling objects. Only workplace disaster on the day of death or a day prior to death was grounds for recognition of compensation claims. But a string of important suits led to changes in recognition standards. First came recognition of accumulated fatigue as causing certain kinds of cardiovascular disease. In a succession of cases, the period of time considered grew to one week, one month and then six months prior to death. Currently, if overtime in the month before death or disability is 100 hours or more, or if the average overtime over the preceding six months is 80 hours or more, recognition of karoshi is routine.

Significantly, the landmark case of a young ad agency worker whose heavy work burden drove him to suicide went to the Supreme Court in 2001. The Court’s decision established employer duty to consider worker health and individual capacities and conditions when assigning them to jobs. Another suit challenged the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s refusal to make public the names of ‘black corporations’ where karoshi has occurred. Although a District Court found for the plaintiffs, the High Court overturned the decision on grounds that such publicity could unfairly damage company reputations. The Supreme Court refused to hear further appeals.

Which brings us back to the legislation mentioned at the outset. After the collection of more than 500,000 signatures on petitions demanding that government take responsibility for creating and enforcing stronger work hours regulations, the lobbying of Diet members and a PR blitz, a law to promote karoshi countermeasures was enacted with strong support in June 2014. The law represents the first step toward government regulation and responsibility for overwork, one that is symbolically important in a country where the authority of private employers is rarely questioned. The law will be revised in 2017 and activists are reforming their organization and tactics to push for substantial penalties in its new form.

Scott North is a Professor of Sociology at Osaka University, Osaka, Japan.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


370