Karoshi — Death By Overwork


goetheThe human race is but a monotonous affair. Most of them labor the greater part of their time for mere subsistence; and the scanty portion of freedom which remains to them so troubles them that they use every exertion to get rid of it.  (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The Sorrows of Young Werther.)

Japan is the country of workaholics. People work hard and literally die from overwork. The problem has become so acute that ‘death by overwork’ entered Japanese language as a word in its own right — ‘karoshi’. By modest government estimate, 200 people die from karoshi every year — heart attacks, cerebral hemorrhaging due to long hours spent at the work place.

A survey by the country’s Labor Ministry in 2013 found out that workers took, on average, only nine of the 18.5 days off they entitled to. One in six Japanese workers did not take any paid holidays in 2013. 22 percent of Japanese work more than 49 hours a week, compared to 11 percent of French and Germans.


The government is looking to ensure that workers take at least 70 percent of their allotted time off and wants to submit legislation in the current parliament session.

The new provision aims to ensure that Japanese workers use vacations to spend time with families, caring for children, especially in the summer months, when kids are on holiday. The third largest in the world, the Japanese economy has a big problem: an aging population and low birth rate.


Many Japanese tend to put off having children, arguing they simply overwhelmed with work commitments or unable to find a partner because everyone’s life is fully devoted to jobs and careers. (Japan child population hits record low.)

“It is actually a worker’s right to take paid vacations. But working in Japan involves quite a lot of a volunteer spirit.” (Yuu Wakebe, the Health and Labor Ministry official who is overseeing the implementation of this legislation. He is adamant things need to change. He regularly works over 100 hours overtime per month and only took five days off in 2014 — one of those was because he was sick. And only because workers in Japan must use their vacation days if they are sick.)

I. Repin. Barge Haulers on the Volga

I. Repin. Barge Haulers on the Volga

Although Japan is overwhelmingly overworked nation, productivity is not a strong point of its economy. ‘Boosting team spirit’ is more important. Collective psyche is such that people would stay at their workplaces long past office hours, only to be perceived as excellent and loyal team members. Go and figure.


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