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Shedding Light in the Darkness

Karoshi – Death By Overworking

japanese-1Japan has a unique word for a form of death foreign to most nations – karoshi: death from overwork. It was first publicly recognized in 1987, when Japan’s health ministry began logging cases after the sudden deaths of a string of executives. A karoshi hotline provides information on this disturbing social phenomenon.

The Karoshi hotline was established by lawyers and doctors in 1988. They estimate that more than 10,000 workers die from work-related cardiovascular diseases each year.

Mr.Yagi, who worked over 70 hours a week at an advertising agency and spent 3.5 hours day in commuting, died from heart attack at age of 43, observed that the modern Japanese workers were under more inhuman conditions than slaves. In his personal diary, he wrote “We are bought by money and bound to the hours. At least slaves must have had time to eat meals with their families.”

Kenji Hamada was an employee at a Tokyo-based security company, with a devoted young wife. His typical week involved 15-hour days and a grueling four-hour commute. One day he was found slumped over his desk. His colleagues assumed he was asleep. When he hadn’t moved several hours later, they realized he was dead. He had died of a heart attack at the age of 42.

To count as karoshi, victims must have worked more than 100 hours of overtime in the month before their death – or 80 hours of overtime in two or more consecutive months in the previous six.

In its first white paper on karoshi last year, the government said one in five employees were at risk of death from overwork.

In China, death from overwork is known as guolaosi, with 600,000 people dying annually or around 1,600 every day. After a 48-year-old banking regulator died at his desk from over work, the China Banking Regulatory Commission declared: “To learn from Comrade Li Jianhua, one must be like him, always firm in ideals and beliefs, the broader interest, loyal to the cause of the party and the people, unremitting struggling, sacrificing everything.”

It is in the “Confucian belt” of Korea, China and Japan that total dedication is the norm, explains Jeff Kingston, an Asian Studies professor in Tokyo, and that “any job worth doing is worth doing excessively.”

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