Is Working To Death Really A Thing In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Vincent asks:

There's always some sort of news about employees dying of overtime work in Japanese media. A professor at an university in Tokyo even stated that he thought it was "pathetic for someone to die just from working more than a hundred hours a month." Why do Japanese companies push their workers so hard? Is there a cultural and historical reason for this kind of logic?

Karoshi (過労死), or working to death, is a real problem in Japan, and it's on the rise. Karoshi is a sudden death that usually takes the form of a heart attack, heart failure or stroke in someone way too young to die from things like that, although it also often takes the form of suicide. It's brought about by prolonged stress, extreme fatigue and overwork, malnutrition, and probably way too much caffeine and possibly alcohol. It first became a problem in Japan in the 70s and 80s, but it also happens in South Korea (where it's called "gwarosa") and increasingly, in China (where it's called "guolaosi").

The roots of karoshi are a toxic mix of deep rooted cultural behaviors and corporate insecurity, and it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Japanese corporate culture already values people staying way too late, self-sacrifice and other displays of dedication. During the post-war reconstruction and economic boom, the idea of giving yourself almost entirely for the sake of a company, which in exchange would give you lifetime employment, took deep root in Japanese society. It became part of an employee's duty to do their absolute best at everything, no matter how hard it is or how much it destroys you. (Sound familiar, kids?)

When the economy slowed down, companies had to try and do more with less, which meant hiring fewer people to do the same amount of work. As a result, the people left had to push even harder to get things done. It's a mark of shame to leave the office before your boss; it's a badge of honor to be the last one in the office. And because it's also seen as a sign of weakness to complain openly, problems of severe overwork don't get addressed. Stoicism is the order of the day: you must focus on doing your task extremely well, and only on that. Don't bother other people with your problems.

Selflessness at the office quickly turns into self-flaglation. Overtime doesn't get counted because it would cause trouble for the company, and anyway, if you only knew your job better it would probably be unnecessary. If you don't work harder, the project will fail, and it will be your fault for letting down the team. It's hard, but ganbarimasu! Before long, you have people working 80-110 hours per week, every week. It's full-fledged workaholism, which is a real thing.

It's easy for a Westerner to look at this and think it's nuts. But without this mindset, it might be impossible for a tiny country like Japan to afford to produce the anime we love. The "Japanese work ethic" as it came to be known was absolutely the reason the country rose to such prominence. When you expect a lot of yourself, it's very often possible you can actually do what you're trying to do, after all. With so many people working so hard and with such high personal standards, it's no wonder that the country became as productive as it did.

But such a cost! Nearly every industry has been affected by the dark cloud of karoshi, and anime is no exception. In fact, just this year, a very well-liked Japanese anime producer died of suspected karoshi right before Anime Expo, and a lot of industry folk were really upset about it. The government holds companies accountable when this sort of thing happens, and that company usually has to pay reparations to the deceased's family. However, it's really the sort of thing that only happens in retrospect.

Companies have tried to address the problem, but the overall national culture just doesn't allow their measures to make much of a difference. You can't limit overtime if nobody's honestly reporting how much they're working. You can enforce "no overtime" days, but employees will just take work home. You can offer go-home-early programs for those caring for relatives, as Mitsubishi UFJ Trust and Banking did, but you can't make people sign up for it (and indeed only 34 of their 7,000 employees did). Nobody wants to be that guy, taking the easy way out while everyone else is working hard.

With Japanese industries desperate to maintain their status with fewer and fewer available workers in the country (see Monday's article for more on that), companies are pushing more and more of their employees to the breaking point. It's awful. I wish I could tell you that this will eventually get better, or that there's some obvious solution out there that only needs to be implemented. But alas, I have nothing. With Japan and its culture like this, it may take a lifetime or more to address these issues, and in the mean time, many lives will continue to be lost.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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