TRIGGER WARNINGS: Mentions and discussion of suicide
We first heard of Japan’s suicide problem when Logan Paul filmed his controversial 2018 vlog in Aokigahara Forest, eerily known as the country’s “suicide forest”. The graphic video sparked outrage when Paul and his friends discovered a corpse hanging from a tree, and instead of shutting off the camera (or not posting the video at all), he and his friends lingered around the corpse, making jokes like it was all part of a tourist attraction. In addition to learning just how ignorant Paul was, the world was left wondering one vital question:
Why is suicide so common in Japan?
If you’ve ever heard of karoshi, you already know a huge chunk of the answer. Coined in the 1970s, karoshi translates to “death by overwork”, where victims either commit suicide from mental exhaustion or suffer a heart attack or stroke. Much of this problem can be attributed to social expectations that leave people relentlessly overworked, sleep-deprived, and generally living the existence of a robot.
The hours at a typical Japanese office, particularly in fast-paced cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, are brutal. 15-20 hour workdays are not uncommon; neither are employees catching a few hours’ sleep at their desks, only to wake up wearing the same clothes the next morning to begin the grueling cycle all over again.
All work and no play isn’t just taxing on the brain and its dopamine production, but in Japan, it has become physical. Between 2008 and 2019, Polish photographer Pawel Jaszczuk captured salarymen asleep on the streets, too exhausted from their 60-hour workweeks to make it home.
“If you go to Japan, it’s very common to see businessmen sleeping on the streets, often near the main train stations,” Jaszczuk said in an interview with Vice. “It’s nothing new […] I want people to view the photos and think, do we really want to end up like this? Are we just being used?”
Looking forward to working in #Japan next week but they have a sinister phrase – Karoshi – which means ‘death by overwork’. Low fertility rate plus an ageing population means #medics and others are struggling, often working 160+ hours overtime each month. https://t.co/IFtOytsKb2 pic.twitter.com/Fac257nI0N
— Mark Britnell (@markbritnell) July 11, 2019
In 2011, an estimated 2,700 people committed suicide because of problems at the workplace. Over time, this problem has not disappeared. In 2020, there were about 1,918 karoshi-related deaths. Famously, Tadashi Ishii, former president of an advertising agency called Dentsu, had to resign in 2016 after 24-year-old employee Matsuri Takahashi worked 105 hours overtime in just one month and jumped off the building’s roof. While grieving, Yukimi Takahashi, Matsuri’s mother, condemned Japan’s toxic workplace culture and called for reform following her daughter’s death. To further address the issue, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced a work-life reform plan, but the real initiative occurred in 2017 when the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry introduced Premium Friday.
In 2020, there were about 1,918 karoshi-related deaths.
This initiative’s goal was to stimulate the economy while promoting a better work-life balance. Premium Friday encourages employees to leave work early on the last Friday of the month to go out and shop. However, this hasn’t had the success that businesses hoped for; in 2019, only 11% of employees have gone home early on Premium Friday.
Why is karoshi such a problem? More importantly, why do people work so much overtime?
Karoshi’s existence can be traced back to the post-World War II era with Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida’s determination to rebuild Japan’s economy and thrust the nation back into the global superpower sphere. Workers were offered lifelong job security as long as they contributed to growing the economy by putting their jobs first. This meant that your job came before your personal physical and mental needs. Work-life balance? It was never even a thought.
Today, Japan’s economy is the third-largest in the world. So why does this post-WWII work culture still suffocate people? YouTube channel Asian Boss took to the streets to find out. One woman explained, “When you see that everyone around you is still working, you feel pressured to stay behind as well because you feel bad going home first.”
This is part of the reason why Premium Friday has yet to really make an impact, even four years later. It also doesn’t seem to matter that in 2018, Japan’s Parliament put a limit on overtime to 99 hours a month and implemented penalties for companies who ignore those rules. The negative stigma that surrounds leaving work at a normal hour, despite colleagues staying late, persists. Premium Friday can’t change that within a few years.
Another man in the Asian Boss video added, “If you leave work when your colleagues are still working, you are destroying company morale.”
Serving one’s company, it seems, drives Japan’s work-life society. Being overworked and overwhelmed is not unique to the country, but it is certainly a particular trend there. It’s hard to peel away layers of ingrained social stigma; valuing work over self-care is ingrained within the minds of Japanese workers and has been since the end of World War II.
Perhaps Premium Friday would see more success if its goals focused less on leaving work to spend money (to further contribute to the economy), and more on highlighting self-care.
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