Time to consign ‘death by overwork’ to Japan’s history

A 24-year-old pressured to work long, hard hours beyond what she could tolerate at the largest advertising agency in Japan jumped from her third-floor dorm room on Christmas Day of last year.

This story went viral, and labor researchers around the country mumbled to themselves, “Dentsu again?”

Dentsu is an ad giant notorious for brutal work hours and its merciless management style. Any labor law textbook worth its salt that covers karōshi (death by overwork) will also introduce the Supreme Court’s famous Dentsu death-by-overwork case. In August 1991 a man, also 24, hanged himself at his home. In 2000, Japan’s highest court ruled that the “suicide was caused by horrendous working conditions.” Eventually Dentsu and the surviving family agreed on a settlement of ¥168 million.

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The 100 hour work week in Japan

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At 3 a.m. on Monday morning, Eriko Fujita leaves the IBM offices in Tokyo. She rushes home to take a shower and get a few hours of sleep before she returns to her office at 7 a.m.

This is the hidden side of life at IBM Japan. For a period of eight months, Fujita, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity, averages 18 to 20 hours of work per day. Her schedule, which includes Saturdays and Sundays, is particularly demanding since she interfaces with programmers in different time zones.

“We don’t have a 5 o’clock-and-get-out kind of culture,” she says with a shrug. While her schedule depends on the specific project, Fujita, in her late twenties, says her typical workday lasts about 15 hours.

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‘Zero Overtime Bill’ is the thin end of the wedge for workers’ rights

Takuboku Ishikawa died in 1910 at the tender age of 26.  But before he left this world, he penned the following famous tanka:

働けど
働けどなお
我が暮らし
楽にならざり
じつと手をみる

Hatarakedo
Hatarakedonao
waga kurashi
raku ni narazari
jitto te wo miru

Staring at my hands
I toil and toil
yet my life gets no easier

Bewildered by his predicament, Takuboku found himself staring at the hands that connected him both physically and spiritually to his work.

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過労死をいっそう促進する「残業代ゼロ制度」はどう考えればいい

働けど
働けどなお
我が暮らし
楽にならざり
じつと手をみる

1910(明治43)年に26歳で夭逝した歌人の石川啄木による、あまりにも有名な短歌である。「どれだけたくさん働いても、一向に暮らしは楽にならないのはなぜだろう? 途方に暮れて、思わずじっと自分の手を見つめてしまう・・・」という意味である。

啄木は若き才能あふれる文学者であったが、生前はその才能が世間になかなか認められず、代用教員や校正など、生活のために様々な職に就いていた(ちなみに、彼は周囲の人に借金をしまくっており、しかもその返済をしなかったという)。ただし、啄木は肉体労働には就いていなかったので、「じつと」見つめていた手は、きっと赤剥けもささくれもなく、細く白かったのだろうと推測できる。

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