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Journal of Business Ethics (2009) 84:209–216 DOI 10.1007/s10551-008-9701-8

Ó Springer 2008

‘‘Karoshi (Work to Death)’’ in Japan

Atsuko Kanai

ABSTRACT. Since the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990’s, the Japanese economy has only recovered slightly. This has direct implications for employment. Both the seniority wage system and the lifetime employment system, which were popular during the period of economic growth in Japan, unavoidably changed to an outcome-wage system. Now there is greater mobility in employment, increased use of nonregular employees, and diversed working patterns. The problem of karoshi – a potentially fatal syndrome resulting from long work hours – has been known since the early 1980s. This problem has become more serious in recent years. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the economic and employment conditions in Japan, as well as to examine the working lifestyle of Japanese men and its connection to ‘‘karoshi.’’ It is argued that (1) the long work hours are not the preference of individuals, but rather the result of the adaptation to the work environment, and; (2) solving this problem requires re-conceptualization of workers’ human rights on the part of both companies and the society as a whole. KEY WORDS: karoshi (work to death), karo-jisatsu (suicide by overwork), white-collar exemption, Japanese male workers

‘‘Karoshi’’ in Japan Karoshi is one of the consequences of working long hours, deteriorating an employee’s health. This term first appeared in the early 1980s, right before Japan entered into the so-called bubble economy. It was defined as a ‘‘condition of being permanently unable to work or dead due to acutely attacking ischemic heart disease such as myocardial infraction, or acute heart failure caused by cerebral vascular diseases such as cerebral hemorrhage, subarachnoid hemorrhage and cerebral infraction, because inherent health problems such as hypertension and arteriosclerosis are deteriorated by excessive work overload’’ (Hosokawa et al., 1982). The National Defense

Council for Karoshi Victims (1989) describes karoshi as a ‘‘fatal condition in which the living rhythm of a human being is collapsed due to excessive fatigue and the life maintenance function is ruined.’’ Figure 1 shows the changes in the number of workers’ accident compensation approved as a result of cerebral/cardio diseases and mental disorders (Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare, 2004, 2007b) Death caused by cerebral/cardio diseases corresponds to karoshi, and suicide or attempted suicide due to mental disorders corresponds to karo-jisatu (suicide by overwork). The number of death cases due to cerebral/cardio diseases in 1996 and earlier, however, has not been reported. Even though the problem of karoshi has been pointed out since early 1980s (for example, National Family Group of Karoshi Victims, 1997), the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare was initially reluctant to approve karoshi. However, as the harmful effects of excessive fatigue or weariness became evident, the Ministry modified standards for karoshi approval in 1995, and further relaxed such standards in 2002. Similarly, so-called karo-jisatsu – suicide committed by workers who were depressed due to work overload – was initially not approved because it was considered intentional behavior on the part of the worker. However, in response to increases in karo-jisatsu, the Ministry relaxed approval standards for mental disorders in 1998. In Figure 1, the result of such revisions can be seen in the increased approval rates of cerebral/cardio diseases from 1995 and mental disorders from 1999 as well as the rapid increase of approved cerebral/ cardio diseases in 2002. In 2006, the number of workers’ accident compensation approved as a result of cerebral/cardio diseases and mental disorders was 355 (including 147 death cases), and the number of mental disorders was 205 (including 66 suicide and attempted suicide...
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