Overwork is an extremely serious social issue in Japan which causes thousands of deaths. This problem is so widespread that separate words were created to describe it. “Karoshi” means death from heart failure or stroke caused by overwork (Weller). “Karo-jisatsu” stands for suicide because of depression and physical and emotional exhaustion from overwork (Weller). According to Hiroshi Kawahito from Nippon.com, it is a norm for most Japanese companies to demand from their employees at least 100 hours of overtime work a month, while the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare of Japan warns that anything more than 80 hours per month causes serious damage to one’s health (Adelstein). The 2016 report of the Japanese government on the issue of overwork estimated that one in five employees in Japan were at risk of karoshi, death by overwork (McCurry). The same year, 2,000 work-related suicides, karo-jisatsu, happened in the country (CBS News). Therefore, there are enough data to prove that overwork is a grave issue in Japan that needs to be properly addressed. This proposal suggests three steps required to solve the problem of karoshi and karo-jisatsu: (1) active and appropriate governmental efforts along with political will to regulate work conditions in Japan, (2) changing work culture in the country by educating Japanese companies about counterproductivity of long work hours and urging them to learn more efficient and humane ways of boosting productivity, and (3) social pressure from citizens and their personal efforts to ensure fair work conditions in Japan.
As the issue of overwork in Japan is so complex, deeply connected with Japanese mentality, and so extremely dangerous for Japanese people, the government must be the one to initiate and enforce the necessary change. Up till now, there have been several governmental attempts to reduce the number of karoshi and karo-jisatsu in the country. However, these attempts have been largely unsuccessful (Weller). It is possible that Japanese government simply lacks political will to take the necessary steps for labor regulation. As Itsuo Sekigawa, the father of a young man who committed suicide from overwork, states, “if our politicians passed laws that really hurt companies, they’d lose elections” (CBS News). This point of view may be correct, taking into account that the current Japanese government proposed to make 100 hours of overtime per month legal in the country and to remove overtime pay for white-collar jobs (Adelstein). This would only worsen the situation with karoshi and karo-jisatsu. However, if the government had political will to make the necessary changes, there is a number of steps that would be very efficient. According to Makoto Iwahashi from Posse, the labor rights organization, these steps are: a strict limit on work hours, severe penalties on any violations by employers, an increased number of labor inspectors to monitor violations, any unpaid overtime prohibited, a black list of companies where karoshi and karo-jisatsu happen made public, and severe penalties for companies that do not have or fake their work logs checked by labor inspectors to monitor work hours (Adelstein).
Another important part of solving overwork problem in Japan is convincing Japanese companies to change their work culture so that it no longer involves long work hours. It is unlikely that the companies will decide to change on their own as there is a longstanding tradition in Japan of employers expecting employees to work overtime as a demonstration of their devotion to their company (Weller; Kawahito). Since the Japanese economic miracle of 1950s, this approach is also considered the most efficient in Japanese society (Weller). That is why Japanese managers need to be educated that extra-long work hours are not the best way to boost one’s business (Kawahito) because physically and emotionally exhausted employees become less productive. Instead of exploiting their employees to death, Japanese companies should learn efficient and humane ways of management that lead to successful business from such European countries as Sweden, Germany, and France (Kawahito). Labor and human rights organizations and activists, as well as the government can educate Japanese companies, consult them, and urge them to change their attitude towards labor, management practices, and work culture.
Finally, the participation of general population in changing work culture in Japan is necessary to solve the overwork problem. Japanese citizens must realize that the problem of karoshi and karo-jisatsu directly threatens them and their loved ones. They must develop an active social position towards this issue. Japanese citizens can pressure their government and companies to change labor policies, regulations, and work culture. After the changes are initiated, general population should also monitor them, so that these changes are efficient and are not called off. Japanese people should also realize that some personal sacrifices would be required from them too for the work culture in Japan to really change for the better. For example, one can argue that the excessive services Japanese businesses provide to their customers are one of the reasons why the employees of these businesses have to overwork (Kawahito). Among such services are shops working 24/7 and around-the-clock deliveries (Kawahito). In order to ensure normal work hours for all the Japanese employees, businesses would need to stop providing some of these excessive services. Therefore, Japanese population should be ready to suffer some inconveniences to protect life and health of Japanese employees (Kawahito).
Karoshi and karo-jisatsu are horrible and grave consequences of labor rights violations in Japan. However, these social issues can be solved with enough will, effort, and cooperation in the society. The change can be achieved through the work of three actors: the government, the companies, and the people. The Japanese government needs to set strict labor regulation and severe punishments for companies that violate them. It should create conditions to properly monitor employers’ conduct towards employees and provide powerful incentives for employers to change their work culture for the better. Japanese companies need to realize that their ways of exploiting employees to death are inhumane and inefficient. They should learn better modern management practices from such countries as Sweden, Germany, and France. Japanese population needs to demand change of work culture and the solution to overwork problem from the government and the companies. Citizens should monitor the activity of both other actors. Japanese people should also be ready to experience some inconveniences as customers who would have fewer extra services to ensure that Japanese employees are not forced to work overtime. With all the actors’ cooperation, karoshi and karo-jisatsu can become nothing but a horrible memory of the past.