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Karoshi - a fatal export from Japan.

TOSHITSUGU Yagi emerged as a statistic on Japan's increasing early mortality chart. Now he has posthumously become an eiyu (hero) of a video citing hazards in Japanese office life today. Yagi was a sarariman (Japanese white collar worker) sometimes working through the night; he even stayed at a hotel near his work, too tired to make the journey home. Yagi had been delighted to receive promotion for his diligence, but hard work brought on physical collapse; he died of a heart attack, at aged 43.

Yagi suffered from what the Japanese are now calling karoshi--'death from overwork'. Karoshi usually refers to acute heart failure following high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, or a cerebral haemorrhage. Today lawyers estimate that some 10,000 Japanese per year are dying from it. This is the same number as are killed by traffic accidents.

It has become a cliche now to refer to Japanese as workaholics. Yet, it was not always so. During the Edo Era (1603-1867) the Japanese gave over much time to leisure and cultural pursuits and were prone to take long vacations. Those could afford it made treks around the country to emulate the great poet Matsuo Basho who produced the classic Oku no hoso-michi ('Narrow Road to the deep North') in 1692.

Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the government encouraged the nation to work hard to catch up with the progress made by western nations, since Japan was only just emerging from a medical zenophobic sleep that had lasted from the early seventeenth century. The national unity policy promoted during the American Occupation and just after further encouraged the Japanese to become workaholics.

Immediately before World War II the average Japanese could expect to work around 2,900-3,000 hours per year. Today that figure has fallen to around 2,100 hours and a forty hour work week was declared an official objective. Nevertheless world recession and changes in Japan's industrial structure and the traditional life-long employment system has produced stress and psychological factors that have been exacerbated the tendency towards overwork. The eroding of the influence of the paternalistic company which would look after you from the cradle to the grave has produced negative psychological symptoms to compensate for the old 'dependency expectations'.

Karoshi is one of these new 'symptoms' and usually seems to occur in workplaces which exhibit two factors. Employees are under immediate threat if their work demands strenuous mental effort and working to deadlines. Stress too, is built up when employees work independently, and to their own initiative, without any assistance from colleagues. The Japanese mind is not geared to independence, especially in a land wherein many employees still take their holidays in work-mate groups.

The bereaved families of karoshi victims have come across a major obstacle to winning recognition of the cause of their loved one's death. Their right to compensation too, is difficult to establish. Most victims' families don't bother to make a claim. Japan's snail-pace justice system deters claimants. During 1992, however, some 600 people filed claims against employers and up to now only 30 claims have been examined.

Mitsue Yagi, the widow of Yagi, was told by the Japan's Ministry of Labour, that her husband did not die from overwork. They said that he had worked hard every day for years and so was used to the lifestyle. The Ministry ruled that a victim of Karoshi has to have been working double the normal working hours just one week previous to death for compensation to be granted.

Neither was Yagi's death covered by his insurance policy; the company's assessment was that he had only been working for three of four hours overtime a day in the week before he died. They concurred with the Ministry of Labour that this amount of time was not sufficient for a claim. Mrs. Yagi commented publicly: 'The Ministry has completely disregarded the fact that my husband had been returning home late almost every night for months'

The plight of the Yagi family is being featured in a video film currently promoted by the national Defence Council for Victims of Karoshi. It was set up in 1988 and deals with some 3,000 calls per year from people who feel pressured by work, employers, government bodies and the like. They quote a further case as part of their publicity: Mr. Daiken Iwata told them that his daughter had died aged 23, after an asthmatic attack allegedly triggered by overwork. Iwata filed a lawsuit against her employer, Fuji bank for damages. 'I found it difficult', he averred, 'to believe that Fuji Bank ... paid so little attention to the lives of the people working in their own offices'.

A lawyer, Toshiro Ueyanagi, adviser to the National Defence Council said recently: 'Karoshi is thought of as primarily a Japanese problem, but we are worried that Japanese firms setting up overseas have in effect begun exporting karoshi through their system of long working hours and few holidays'. And labour agreements in Japan, he emphasised, between management and employees can easily sidestep legislation devised to protect workers. Ueyanagi added: 'Many workers are working harder than ever, often doing unpaid overtime due to recession and cut backs'. Indeed the fear of the kata-tataku ('tap on the shoulder') of the executive sent to fire you is very real in modern Japanese business.

Toshiro Ueyanagi and his colleagues are not hopeful that the change of government in Japan will help the plight of those vulnerable to karoshi. It is only very recently, for the first time since the 'oil shocks' of 1974, that the government departments admit that Japan has finally joined Europe in a recession. And that to get out of her troubles Japan must set a course towards risutora (redtructuring).

The knock-on effect of small businesses closing has meant that the annual bonuses that every Japanese employee expects have been cut. Even companies like Nissan and Sony are reporting losses and some executives elsewhere are being paid partly in vouchers in lieu of cash. This is another stress level for the karoshi vulnerable.

A very distressing aspect of the recession is being seen in the increased cases of those who feel that they cannot even wait for karoshi. In this connection the case of the Tomita family was highlighted recently. While out of a car ride, Mr. and Mrs. Tomita, and their three infant children, were found dead by carbon monoxide poisioning, the parents having taken the whole family's life because of pressure of debt and the attentions of a loan shark.

Japan is finding it more difficult to restructure. Before, the country could export its way out of trouble. Now western trading partners are promoting a blocking policy; and karoshi is one product the West does not need to import.


ENEMY DEAD (Arabian Gulf 1991)

The sands will not forgive My blood's stain...blood Poured by false prophets Who command their truth Ignite pillars of fire Past avenging dunes.

Fear crawls catlike Through armour scourged By genie winds As vultures clamor Dead offerings Of men.

Battle rakes a heart Bleeding despair...night Grinds flesh from bone And blinded dawn lifts My aching soul To silence.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Lamont-Brown, Raymond
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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