So, you want to work in Japan? Shut up; no, you don’t. What you really want is to get paid to watch anime, play video games, and test the sex-droids once they figure out how to stop them from trying to take over the world immediately after activation. And who knows, maybe you’ll be the first person ever to ride that particular unicorn (wait, are we still talking about the sex-droids?) But in the meantime, chances are that any job you find in Japan will probably involve pants. Oh, and if you’re not careful, it may also kill you. Here’s everything you need to know …

Japan Has a Word For “Death from Overwork” For a Reason

There is power in words but also in their absence. That’s why we don’t have a special name for, say, death by coconut or execution by elephant, despite those being way more common than most people think (which admittedly is about “Zero? Has to be zero. Please say ‘zero’ right now…”) By not naming an act, it’s like we’re symbolically trying to wish it out of existence. It’s also why a depressing thing getting its own name is so scary: because it means that it finally became too big a problem to ignore. Japan, unfortunately, learned that the hard way when they had to come up with the word “karoshi” to describe their epidemic of “death from overwork.”

The first reported case of karoshi occurred in 1969 when a 29-year-old shipping department worker suffered a fatal stroke caused by their increased workload. Since then, many more have tragically passed away following prolonged periods of insane overtime, with one office worker at a Tokyo printing company working 4,320 hours annually during the years leading up to his death from a stroke. That’s like pulling 11-plus-hour days every. Single. DAY for 365 days straight. All initial victims of karoshi, including both middle-aged people and those in their 20s and 30s, worked an average of 3,000h/year (almost twice as much as in the US), which the companies and government tended to report as “definitely a weird coincidence. Alright, back to work.”

Prometheus72/Shutterstock

“Out of office; sorry for the short notice!  I’ll still be responding to emails via Ouija board.”

The problem remained largely swept under the carpet until 1982, when a group of physicians published a book about the phenomenon titled Karoshi. Now that the depressing thing had a name, it became difficult for corporations and officials to ignore it, but they rolled up their sleeves, put in long hours, and tried to anyway. The government started paying compensation to the families of a few dozen people a year who most likely died from overwork, but they did it with the attitude of a freshman philosophy major, going: “We don’t actually know what happened to them. How can humans even know anything? What is death anyway? What is life? Here, have some money.”

This forced experts to have to guess the scope of the problem like the most horrifying puzzle since the Lament Configuration. Essentially, researchers determined the most common kinds of karoshi (hemorrhage, cerebral thrombosis, myocardial infarction, and heart failure), then looked at the total national number of deaths attributed to those causes and tried to ascertain how many of them were the result of overwork. Their best guess was that karoshi killed anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 people a year, but that was back in the ‘90s when most victims of karoshi were men. Nowadays, women make up a sizeable percentage of karoshi deaths, which also include more and more overwork-related suicides.

Modern estimates of karoshi now start at 10,000 cases per year, but they are still largely guesses because of a lack of hard data that the government should be collecting but isn’t. And that’s despite a nationwide campaign to fight karoshi launched in the wake of the tragic death of Miwa Sado, a 31-year-old reporter who worked 209 hours of overtime in the month leading up to her passing away from congestive heart failure. Not 209 hours total. 209 hours of just overtime, putting her at something like 110 hours of work a week. Not even out-of-touch billionaires who throw out completely made-up figures about how much they work to make themselves look cool go that high because it would sound too unbelievable.

How Did We Get Here?

In the aftermath of WW2, Japan’s economy was on the verge of collapse, to which the American occupation forces reacted with an “Oh, no! Anyway …” The US did help Japan out with food shipments to help avoid a famine, but they weren’t exactly rushing to their economic rescue. Then, the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949 with the victory of the Chinese Communist Party. Suddenly there were fears that an unhappy Japan could become a communist Japan, especially with the Soviet Union being right next-door and having a tendency to “liberate” struggling countries and impose their ideology on them. And that was America’s job!

A decision was made to turn Japan into America’s foothold in the Pacific against the evils of communism and their weird ideas of just giving people things for free. But in order to do that, the US needed a stable Japan, so they just gave them a bunch of things for free. Millions of dollars were pumped into the economy after the start of the Korean War (1950) as Japan became the central food depot for UN forces in the region while the US made a trade deal with Japan that amounted to: “You make it, we buy it.”

Robtek/Shutterstock

Which, in fairness, worked out pretty well long term.

Japan’s economic recovery did lift it up from the ashes of WW2 and into the status of a superpower, and it really was nothing short of a miracle. But not because everyone simply “worked hard.” It was due to extremely close economic ties to the US, a newly-emerged system of lifetime employment, and the work of unions. Unions here aren’t as big as they once were, but a reminder of the power they used to have can be found in the word for their annual March/April wage negotiations with employers. To this day, it’s still called “shunto,” meaning “the spring offensive.” So while everyone busted their hump like crazy from 1950 to the 1980s, it was in an atmosphere of job security, rising wages, and a booming economy. And as we all know, what goes up, will always stay up. We’re gonna live forever! That’s how the saying goes, right?

Due to just a whole bunch of factors, including the 1973 oil crisis, the early 1980s US recession, stock, and real estate market speculation, the pulling back of US subsidies, bad investments, and for all we know, the release of Ghost—which was actually called Ghost/The Phantasm of New York over here—the Japanese economic bubble collapsed in the 1990s. Though things already weren’t going great before that. Starting in the ‘70s, in a quest for higher profits in an economy that was showing signs of slowing down, employers started demanding longer hours from their workforce.

During the 1980s, massive layoffs took place, with those remaining expected to deliver even better results at half the strength. Feelings of betrayal due to the firings of people who literally worked all of their adult lives for the same company combined with stress and exhaustion, and suddenly one of the saddest Japanese words ever came into existence. The era of karoshi was in full swing. 

Some years back, I had a chance to talk to someone who lived through all of this, and their stated reason for staying at a job that was literally killing people or driving them to suicide was that they all thought it was temporary. They believed that if they just pushed themselves hard for a year or so, maybe two, they could all go back to the glory days. That “year or so” quickly turned into the so-called Lost Decade (~1990 – 2000) when the country was desperately chasing the high of its economic miracle. It was a bad time to be working in Japan. But what about now?

So… Should You Worry About Dying from Overwork in Japan?

Proooobably not. Here’s the deal: If you don’t speak at least okay-ish Japanese, chances are the only job you’ll be able to get here is as an English teacher. The only qualifications you will need is a passport issued by an English-speaking country. And while school work in Japan has become a karoshi nightmare, that doesn’t apply to ESL teachers. Don’t get me wrong. That job can suck more ass than a Donkey Juice bar during happy hour because of the low wages and a heavy workload way beyond what you were promised. But not enough to kill you, and it all ultimately depends on what school you’re assigned to. And if you don’t like your job, you can find another one. In fact, most workers in Japan can. That wasn’t always an option.

The traditional Japanese system of lifetime employment had a lot of upsides like guaranteed raises, bonuses, and even promotions. Also, after the initial wave of firings leading up to the Lost Decade, it became next to impossible to get fired from a large Japanese corporation. Losing a job took something extreme like embezzling from the company and then blowing it all on a Las Vegas getaway with the CEO’s wife or a tattoo of Calvin peeing on a very detailed likeness of your boss’ face. That you personally inked onto his dog. That and the occasional downsizing/bankruptcy were the only acceptable reasons for not being with a company anymore. Which meant that you couldn’t just quit a job, even if it was killing you with triple-digit-hour workweeks. If you quit, this is what your next job interview would have looked like:

“I see that you worked for Company B. Ah, I didn’t know they went under. Wait, they didn’t? Ah, I see. Layoffs, was it? What? You weren’t laid off…? You just… you just quit? You mean you… You were with the company… and then you weren’t? And you never even went near the CEO’s dog? I see *into intercom* Security!”

SakSa/Shutterstock

Tl;dr: always tattoo a dog before job hunting in Japan.

Old-school companies like that are still very much out there, but many others, including some of the biggest corporations in the country, have helped incorporate a few modern practices into Japan’s corporate culture, like job-hopping. Used to be that a company that helped you change jobs was less welcomed in Japan than a habanero-popper stand on Oral Sex Island. Now, there are hundreds of job-hopping companies and sites that you can use to find a workplace that won’t try to work you to death. I truly believe that they are the majority these days.

But what if you want a specific job at a specific company that operates on old-school rules and wants you to move into the office? Then you might be screwed. Miwa Sado worked for the national broadcaster NHK, a dream job for Japanese journalists. Maybe she felt like she had to prove herself or was pressured. It doesn’t matter: she should have been protected by the law, which was the goal of the 2018 Work Style Reform Bill meant to cap the amount of overtime an employee is legally allowed to do. But in 2020, nearly 9,000 companies have broken those laws and faced few consequences. Then again, in March this year, a company here was referred to prosecutors for illegal overtime practices, so maybe things are finally changing for the better…?

There has been progress in Japan’s workforce, but it will take more for karoshi to become a thing of the past. In the meantime, all we can do is advocate for workers’ rights and stop praising Microsoft Japan for implementing a 4-day workweek. That thing is posted to social media like once a week, but nobody ever seems to read the article to the end where it’s explained that it was a pilot program that only lasted one month in 2019, for a grand total of five extra days off. And it was never repeated again despite clear benefits to the company like a 40% boost in productivity. At this rate, we’ll never get those sex-droids, unicorn-shaped or otherwise…

Follow Cezary on Twitter.

Top image: GBJSTOCK/Shutterstock

Tags

Forgot Password?