You may have read or heard how hard working and dedicated the Japanese people are towards their jobs. Consistently they put in long hours and undying loyalty to their employer, and in return they get a cushy pension, benefits, and life-time employment (although the guarantee of life-time employment is not what it used to be). But what is the cost of loyalty towards ones company? For some, it’s death.

Certainly the concept of overworking yourself to death is not unique to the Japanese, however the country perhaps does take the issue more seriously than others. Coined with the term 過労死 (かろうし, karoshi; added to the Oxford English dictionary 2002), overworking to death has become a problem in Japan and a favorite topic to cover among the media circles; As a social issue by the Japanese media, and as a characterization of the Japanese society and culture by foreign media. Causes of karoshi deaths are from developed health issues that result in heart attacks and strokes due to long periods of high-level stress. It can also lead to suicide, which is given its own term, 過労自殺 (かろうじさつ, karojisatsu; literally translated to overwork suicide).

According to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW), “sudden deaths of any employee who works an average of 65 hours per week or more for more than 4 weeks or on average 60 hours or more per week for more than 8 weeks may be karoshi.”

How serious is it?

The first recorded case of karoshi occurred in 1969. Nearly a decade later (1978), the concept was given the name “karoshi”. In 1982, the release of the book entitled Karoshi by Tajiri Seiichiro, Hosokawa, and Uehata brought the issue in the public view, but it wasn’t recognized as a major social problem until the 1980’s Bubble Economy.

A few high-ranking corporate executives died without any hints of illness leading up to their deaths. The deaths were picked up by the media, which promptly developed growing concerns from the public. They had every right to be concerned, since they too were putting just as many hours into their jobs as the dead executives. Concerns reached to the point where the government took action and started collecting and publishing information on karoshi as a cause-of-death option.

According to the Labor Force Survey, nearly one-fourth of male employees (7.8 million) clocked in more than 60 hours per week of work in 1988. Based on the numbers in 1975, it’s nearly a 2.4 times increase. Even though the statistics threshold is 60 hours and above, a typical work week can easily be 70-90 hours per week. Why do this? To show loyalty to their company. This loyalty stems from the Japanese culture of living for one’s master and superior. More often than not, the extra work is done as cloaked overtime (furoshiki), where the employee does his work off the clock and the employer turns a blind eye.

A survey conducted by the government showed that 90% of workers didn’t understand the concept of work-life balance. Four out of five would cancel any dates or plans if their boss asked them to work overtime.

More recent statistics showed the situation hasn’t changed. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 28% of Japanese employees worked 50 hours or more per week in 2001. The percentage is significantly a lot higher than many European nations: Germany (5.3%), Finland (4.5%), Sweden (1.9%), and Netherlands (1.4%). Japan is on the same level with the U.S. as developed nations that put in the most work hours, although many believe that the Japanese work significantly more hours than the U.S.. A lot of the Japanese overtime hours are left unrecorded (cloaked overtime), therefore not taken into consideration when generating the statistics.

In 2005, the MHLW reported 328 Japanese employees who suffered karoshi. The number is a little over 7 times higher than the recorded result in 2000.

Bear in mind that the statistic numbers are believed to be not on par with reality. Many families accept the death with silence and don’t push the issue any further. And most companies won’t outright accept responsibility for the deaths. Lawyers and scholars estimate the annual number of karoshi victims to be in the ballpark of 9,000 deaths, which is near the annual number for traffic fatalities.

To put some of this into perspective of how severe the overworking can be, let’s consider a karoshi case. Hiraoka Satoru’s story was featured in the November 13, 1988 Chicago Tribune’s article Japanese Live and Die for their Work. A foreman in charge of a ball bearing factory, Hiraoka usually clocks in 12- to 16- hour days, easily totaling up to between 72 to 95 hours a week for most weeks. The prior three years before his death, he clocked in at almost 3,700 hours annually. A typical 40 hr work week with no vacation equates to 2080 hours annually.

The thorn in most of the karoshi victims’ side is that they are often not compensated for the overtime work.

How is karoshi being handled?

A few Japanese companies are making some effort to reduce karoshi and promote a work-life balance to their employees. For example, Toyota has set a hard limit of 360 hours of overtime annually. In addition, some of their offices play a recorded message every hour during the evenings urging the staff to go home and get some rest. Some companies enforce no overtime days where everyone must leave the office at 5:30 pm.

Sometimes the measures implemented by these companies aren’t enough for the employees. While on paper it may seem like they are recognizing the problem, the competitive work environment demonizes those who decide to partake in these policies. For example, Mitsubishi UFJ Trust & Banking has a program that allows their employees to go home up to three hours early to care for children or elderly relatives. Only 34 out of 7,000 employees are signed up for the program.

Frustrated with the situation, more and more workers and/or their families are taking on their negligent employers in court.

Some individuals are avoiding the situation entirely by taking on short-term jobs, rather than be a worn out salaried cog for large companies. Although the pay and benefits don’t match to a corporates compensation, the work-life balance is significantly better.

There is this adage I like to use when differentiating U.S./Japan work culture to the European style: U.S. and Japan live to work, while the Europeans work to live. I do believe that everyone should give their 100% effort in performing their jobs, however having your health deteriorate to the point of death is certainly not worth it. Many Japanese are slowly coming to realize this.

P.S. Maybe being a フリーター (freeta) is more your style? Share it on Twitter.
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Featured Image:
Sleeping (Really! They are not dead, just sleepting!) Japanese Salaryman Images:

Hiyama, T & M Yoshihara. “New occupational threats to Japanese physicians: karoshi (death due to overwork) and karojisatsu (suicide due to overwork)” Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol.65 No.6 (June 2008): 428-429. Print.

Morioka, Koji. “Work till You Drop” New Labor Forum Vol.13 No.1 (Spring, 2004): 80-85. Print.

Rowley, Ian & Hiroko Tashiro. “Recession Puts More Pressure on Japan’s Workers.” Bloomberg Businessweek, 5 January 2009: <>. Online.

“Karoshi Strikes Japanese Businessmen” British Medical Journal. Vol.303, No.6815 (Dec 7, 1991): p 1419. Print.

  • allie

    Interesting article. I would love to read more about working full time in Japan. Most companies in my area give 2 weeks vacation, 6-8 sick/personal days, and 6 national holidays off… what do holidays look like in Japan? I know they have 15 national holidays, but how many do they actually take off? Is it frowned upon to take personal days? Lunch hours? 

  • Viet

    I have read it’s usually frown upon if you take your full vacation. Not sure how many work holidays are actually recognized as a days off. Though I would like to know as well. I’m sure New Years and Golden Week are considered hands-off, but I’m just making a wild guess.

  • Kai_sin

     I bypassed all that madness by joining the military, if i were japanese, i wouldve joined the JSDF for a way out of the rat race.

  • Anonymous

    I knew they had long work hours in Japan but 70-90 hours?!?! Wow!! I would go crazy!!! 

  • Anonymous

    Wow, I have a hard enough time putting in 40 hours a week (btw, it really sucks being paid as a part-time employee yet still having to work full-time hours with no benefits /rant).  One summer I worked 55-60 hours a week plus Saturdays and I wanted to shoot myself in the foot from exhaustion….but I guess some people do that on a regular basis, but as to how, I have no idea.  I really do feel sorry for those people :(

  • Shollum

    I’ve also heard that many Japanese will continue to stay at the office and create the image of working. Even going as far as making work to do, just to show their loyalty to the company and to compete as the best worker.

    I might have heard that here…

  • Antisthenes

    Productivity per hour is very low in Japan, though the hours are long: they might end up getting as much done in a 60hr week a N.American does in 40.  Throw-in standing on trains for 3hrs return, and drinking with the same *&^% people you work with a few days a week, and if you don’t wear your body down you will wear down your soul.

  • Viet

    I’ve also heard the same thing. Many will just continue to “work” until their superior leaves the office.

  • Kiriain

    …Damn. I plan on going to Japan and living there, but I hope I don’t die while working there. That would just ruin my day.

  • Jen

    At my school, teachers get 20 days off a year, 20 of which can roll over into the next year, totaling 40 if you can build it up. You also can have 20 sick days, but a doctor’s note is required. That being said, most teachers do not take off those 20 days. If vacation is taken, it’s usually between semesters when there are no classes, since teachers are required to be in school even if classes are not in session.

    As far as I can tell, the only way that taking a personal vacation is frowned upon is if you have work to do and you’re leaving your class to other teachers. There are no substitute teachers in my school (or any of my friends’ schools) so taking vacation means more work for your colleagues.

    Of course, this is in the case of a school, not a company, but I thought I’d give you my experience.

  • Jen

    Maybe my teachers are just lazy, but they all leave at 5PM on the dot or earlier (one has a 4-year-old daughter he has to pick up from kindergarten). Then again, my teachers might just not care.

  • (゜o゜)

    Seriously? Ruin your day? ‘Cause I could see that easily being the low point of that entire week.

  • ZA다ルﻣ

    oh, come on, you could learn to live with that, couldn’t you? XD

  • Nicole Bergström

    My boyfriend is a Japanese business man, working in Tokyo. He works on average around 18 hours a day (including overtime) and rarely sees a day without any overtime. He get’s weekends and holiday’s off, but if asked will work then as well, not because he wants to (because he says that he hates the job), but because he has to show loyalty to the company, or he feels like he has to anyway. 
    We were supposed to meet yesterday (Friday night), but he ended up remaining at work until 4am this morning, because his boss asked him and he can’t see a way around it.
    At this point I just accept it, but I can’t help but worry. On his days off, he can sleep the entire day and he’s almost like in a coma when he does. He’s like a cat in that sense; when he closes his eyes, he’s “gone” instantly.
    He has told me that he will switch work to something better as soon as he gets the experience he needs from this work, so I try to remain positive and hope that he won’t have to put in that much overtime at the next place as well.
    As far as I know, he’s never compensated for the overtime either..
    Watching him, when he gets off work, I can tell that he’s not feeling well, but it still amazes me that he remains standing, because I would hit the wall for far less. I just hope that he doesn’t get sick or worse..

  • Viet

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Sorry to hear about your boyfriend. Hopefully he gets out of there before he becomes accustomed to the grind or they promote him into a less time-consuming position : 

  • Ken Seeroi

    I’ve worked in two Japanese offices, and I’ll tell you, never again.  The workloads were tremendous and the hours absurd.  I have no doubt that what others say about people just killing time at their desks is correct, but in the places I worked, we were seriously busy from morning till night.  They just took on more projects than were humanly possible.  Working hard in Japan seems to trump all reason.  It’s certainly one of the reasons that many foreigners don’t stay here for more than a year or two.

    I feel sorry for my Japanese friends, most of whom put in 12+ hour days.  I can also attest to what Nicole says as being true.  Some employees put in 18 hours a day, or more.  I had a friend who worked in an office where they put in 20 hours a day, then slept at their desks for 4 hours.  Once a week they could go home and take a shower.

    There’s a lot of things to love about Japan, but work isn’t one of them.

  • Anonymous

    wow, a real eye opener. Great article! 

  • susanne

    Well, I once worked for a Japanese Company over here in Europe. I couldn’t believe when I saw the boss sitting at his desk, sleeping! A local boss never ever would sleep at the desk. Anyone doing that over here would loose the face.
    Of course, the subordinates of the Japanese boss started working erarlier than he did  and would leave later than he. Well, at least one had stomach troubles. 

    I’ve heard of this Japanese who is working at the moment for a Japanese company over here in Europe. He lives home at 6:30 am to be at work by 7 and gets back around 9pm. When the Japanese stock exchange starts a couple of hours after midnight he gets phone calls…
    He is allowed to take one week of vacation, even though, over here it’s a minimum of 4 weeks vacation who people have to take.

    Such work hours are just nuts. No one can be productive for 12 hours over a longer period.
    Moreover, working such hours, the society looses in the long run. Tthose people have no chance to have a social life…
    No wonder, the Japanese society is aging really fast and eventually is becoming extinct, if the children birth rate stays low, when there is neither time to find a mate nor for a family life!

    For the individual it’s sad, for a society a tragedy in the long run.

    Japan at the very top

    Japan at the very end

    Here in the middle

  • roen

    I admire them :)

  • Anonymous

    Not much chance of that happening to me :)

  • Kaito Michishige

    I’m not as much afraid of the hours, as of the work load. For example, at the restaurant I work at, weekdays are 9 hours of here-some-there-some work. Weekends are 6 hours non-stop full shop. As you can imagine, I have no trouble on weekdays, while weekends are absolutely wrecking and I can barely manage to do anything beside work and sleep.

    16 hours? As long as I’m not working my rearside off those entire 16 hours, I’m fine.

  • Kaito Michishige

    This is, in fact, something I was thinking while reading this. Nobody can deliver maximum performance at 95 hour-weeks. That’s just silly. At best, you’ll actually work for 3-4 hours, and sit there wondering what the hell for the rest of the day.

  • Kaito Michishige

    I pitty them, and so should you. Working your arse off is nothing to be proud of, unless it’s for a good reason. Salary is not a good reason.

  • susanne

    There is the Japanese statisics about Japanese society growing old until 2060
    40% of the Japanese will be older than 65, populations will shrink until then 32%.
    I’m curious who will take care of all those old people.

    Well, Europe has kind of the same problem, every year less working people have to support a growing retired population. I probably can retire at 73 or was it 82? ;-)

  • Bryan

    The term Freeta applies to me more. I have degree but not to serious about field of study. Don’t get me wrong I love my degree just not looking to spend the next 20 years doing the same thing day in and out. I might get more serious if I become a family man.. lol Might.. lol

  • Tuna

    It’s so weird how that reminds me of my older brother (Who’s half Japanese) I remember calling him at about 11 and we talked for a while, and during that talk I found out he was walking to get dinner and was going to eat it and then sleep at his work because he just got off his first job at 10:30 and was set to work at his second job at 6:00AM. I couldn’t imagine having to work like that, but I probably will here soon.

  • Leryan Burrey

    Although I am sympathetic to this article, I do not understand how the Mitsubishi Trust and Banking program that offers child/elderly care for salarymen has a demonizing effect. I feel you began with a possible strong example (34 out of 7,000 participants), but I don’t see how that relates to a sense of “demonization.” I can intuit what you possibly are implying, but I think the link between the numbers and societal/economic detriments are missing clarity. In other words, what do you mean by your statement? How is the Mitsubishi UFJ demonizing workers with a count of 34 out of 7,000? Why do those 34 supposedly “disloyal workers” choose to remain “demonized” in a sense? What is the Mistubushi UFJ doing to the rest of the 6,966 “safe,” “warranted,” and “loyal” workers? What are they doing for them that they aren’t doing for those 34?

    While I do sense a disconnection between this program’s actual and potential numbers, there isn’t sufficient evidence to support that this problem relates to karoshi, despite it stemming from the issue itself. Simply put, there could be an entirely other reason that there only 34 salarymen ready and willing to commit to the “well-balanced” life style. For instance, it could just be that the company is simply bad at promulgating the program, not a “demonizing campaign” upon disloyal overtimers.

    I think that if you made stronger connections here, the article would have been pragmatically and statistically succinct. It would’ve seen a direct cause and effect relationship with Mitsubishi and a potential correlation to karoshi. Other than that, it is idealistically sound, however, that is just my humble opinion.