Japan’s Overwork Problem: How the Problem Occurs

Karoshi, death from overwork

It’s very difficult to summarize this problem briefly because it is so deep-rooted. Are you ready to gaze into abyss? The Japan government has started frequently using the word “Work style reform” since 2015. Sadly, a new girl working in the top advertising firm committed suicide due to overwork that year. Her average overtime hours were reported to exceed 100 hours a month. That is almost the same as that of mine when I worked in the Ministry of Finance. The painful sad news made many people including me think “That could be me.” Even now, about 300 deaths from overwork are reported annually.

Photo Credit: mizuaki wakahara

Japanese employment systems

I believe this is a structural problem, stemming from the structure of employment systems in Japan. Although the structure is gradually breaking down, the basics of employment systems are still the same. It is a set of these two factors: recruiting of new graduates and lifetime employment. Companies assign jobs to generalists grown internally, instead of assigning specialists to required positions. The former companies adjust output by the amount of overtime; the latter companies by hire and layoff. Each employment style has both advantages and disadvantages. People may die due to overwork in the former system; due to unemployment in the latter system.

Some of you may think the government should toughen penalties. Actually, some bills already passed the Diet in 2019, but dishonest companies have concealed the information of overtime. Consequently, the toughened penalties have caused new poorer victims engaged in unpaid overtime. To tell the truth, my overtime hours were not fully paid when I worked in the Ministry of Finanace that was said to be the richest ministry in Japan. This kind of self-sacrifice is still regarded as a virtue in some workplaces in Japan.

Peer pressure makes the situation worsen

There’s another factor making the darkness of the overwork problem deeper in Japan. It’s a fact that Japan is a closed society. Let me give the proof. Psychopaths are necessary for human evolvement. The ratio of psychopaths in island countries is less than 1%, much lower than that in continental countries (around 4%). Do you know why that is? It’s difficult for deviants to survive in the closed society of island countries like Japan. People rejecting overtime are judged as deviants in Japan of today. CondeHouse? Yes, it has the problem of overtime, but the management regards it as a problem and is seriously working on it. Unfortunately, such honest companies are inferior in market competition. I’m hoping for a system where people reject products made in overtime, like Fairtrade activities.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.

Photo Credit: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/18/business/japan-work-overtime-tv-show.html