JAPAN’S SUICIDAL SALARYMEN ARE DYING FOR WORK
I recently took a trip to Brussels and met a Japanese woman on vacation in the hostel I was staying in. At 4 AM that morning, when I heard Sayaka—my new Japanese friend—quietly answer her phone and creep from her bed to the downstairs computer room, I was naturally interested in what she was up to. A mole, keeping tabs on guests for the hostel owners? A weirdo, relaying late-night messages about Brussels to her parents because she didn’t feel comfortable using the internet in daylight?
No, turns out it was the only holiday she had taken that year and the early morning computer visit was to finish off some “urgent” work for her boss, which is a pretty sucky way to spend your vacation. Then again, it’s still better than the 16-hour days at the office that awaited her at home.
Sayaka’s situation isn’t uncommon. A large amount of the population in Japan’s biggest cities have a destructive relationship with work, literally, with many grinding themselves away to an early grave. The social phenomenon has its own word, karoshi, and it isn’t death from digit-crippling labor in a sweatshop or accidents on a building site. It’s suits in corporate buildings dying from strokes, heart attacks, or committing suicide after being worked to their limit.
Earlier this year, the suicide of 26-year-old Mina Mori was accepted as karoshi after an investigation found she’d been clocking up 140 hours of overtime every month, working at a popular chain restaurant called Watami. Employees for numerous companies are expected to embrace a work culture that’s destroying their lives—a kind of worse version of the embrace through gritted-teeth I’d imagine David Miliband gave his brother when he got the party leader job—but a firm, necessary embrace nonetheless.
Karoshi was first recognized in the late 60s, when a guy in the shipping department of Japan’s largest newspaper company died after having a stroke, which seemed kind of unusual for a 29-year-old, until people realized that radically overworking a human can have negative effects on the body, which somehow managed to be a surprise. Since then, cases have become relentless battles between family members of the deceased trying to prove their relatives died from being overworked, and the company in question trying their hardest to sweep it under the ever-lumpier rug.