A monthly column from the Asia Pacific Management Forum

Review focus: Because of peer pressure to keep up with co-workers, out-do competing groups and increase market-share at the expense of competitors, Japanese managers are caught up in a vortex of psychological pressure that forces them to work at a frenzied pace.

Boye Lafayette de Mente's Asian Business Code WordsBoye Lafayette de Mente is one of our regular monthly columnists at the Asia Pacific Management Forum. A noted author with over 30 years of experience in China, Japan, Korea and other Asian countries, Boye's tips on doing business in the region are both pragmatic and enlightening. Some material is taken from Boye's many books exploring Asian cultural and business Code Words, business etiquette, customs, and language.

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Karoshi
(Kah-roe-she)
May 2002

Death from Overwork

Japan's rise from the devastation of World War II to economic prominence between 1945 and 1975 was not without human cost. People cannot work for ten or twelve hours a day six and seven days a week, year after year, without suffering physically as well as mentally.

But during the first three postwar decades no one paid any special attention to the larger than usual number of men in their 40s and 50s who died of brain and heart ailments, most often from acute cardiac insufficiency and subarachnoid hemorrhage.

It was not until the latter part of the 1980s, when several high-ranking business executives who were still in their prime years suddenly died without any previous sign of illness, that the news media began picking up on what appeared to be a new phenomenon.

This new phenomenon was quickly labeled karoshi (kah-roe-she), or "death from overwork", and once it had a name and its symptoms were broadcast far and wide, it just as quickly became obvious that Japan was experiencing a virtual epidemic.

According to Labor Ministry statistics there had been only twenty-one case of karoshi in 1987, twenty-nine cases in 1988 and thirty cases in 1989. But a liaison council of attorneys established in 1988 to monitor deaths from overwork estimated in 1990 that over 10,000 people were dying each year from karoshi.

At that time, Hiroshi Kawahito, an attorney who was acting as the secretary-general of the Karoshi Bengo Dan Zenkoku Renraku Kaigi (Kah-ros-she Bane-go Dahn Zen-koe-kuu Rane-rah-kuu Kie-ghee), or "National Liaison Council of Lawyers on Death from Overwork," said: "The corporate world is hiding behind promises of improved consumer services while partaking in excessive competition, thus victimizing its employees."

Kawahito added that employers generally do not recognize karoshi as job-related, and that since the Ministry of Labor supports the efforts of industry to maintain a high growth rate it works against the interests of employees. He accused some Labor Ministry officials of being soft on management because they were angling for cushy jobs with major corporations after they retired from government service.

Yoshinori Hasegawa, Vice Director of the Chiba Kensei Hospital and a recognized authority on karoshi, says that most of the victims of death from overwork had been putting in more than one hundred hours of overtime each. He said the victims did not receive any overtime pay for their extra work, but were members of the élite managerial class who worked themselves to death "out of a samurai-like pride".

Because of peer pressure to keep up with co-workers, out-do competing groups and increase market-share at the expense of competitors, hundreds of thousand of Japanese managers are caught up in a vortex of psychological pressure that forces them to work at a frenzied pace.

After years of such intense over-work, most managers find that they cannot rest even when they do take time off. They are so wound up that not working leaves them disoriented and suffering from serious stress.

Masaaki Noda, professor of foreign studies at Kobe City University, says it is not difficult to understand why so many of Japan's salarymen work so hard because they have shut themselves off from their families and have not place to go but to work.

The continued Japanese economic decline of the past few years has forced changes to long-held beliefs of salarymen on the omnipotence and shelter of the large organization, but not reduced related stress. Increased unemployment and salary decreases has indeed compounded the problem (Eds.)

This month's column is excerpted from Japan's Cultural Code Words, by Boye Lafayette De Mente available from NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company


© Boye Lafayette De Mente & the Asia Pacific Management Forum 2002