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Death by Ambition: The Karoshi Crisis

By Will Robertson, Associate Editor

Graphic by Senching Hsia, Graphics Editor

A new plague has begun sweeping many eastern Asian nations — an epidemic which has caused the death of thousands, yet receives shockingly little media spotlight. This murderer of many is neither a disease nor a virus or bacteria as you might expect, but rather 過労死 (karoshi). Karoshi is when a worker (typically part of a large company) is exhausted from their job, and the workload causes their death, either by suicide or more natural means (fatal conditions like heart attack or stroke). The government decides whether or not the death is karoshi; in order for the death to be declared karoshi, the government must investigate the circumstances of death, and if it is decided that the person died because of their work, it is declared karoshi: death by overwork. Although karoshi affects many each year, splitting families and destroying lives, it goes unnoticed by the majority of the world.

Karoshi has only received press coverage in recent years, but it is an issue that has been affecting people for generations. The first report of death due to an overly strenuous workload occurred in 1969 when a 29 year-old male worker had a stress-induced stroke while working for a newspaper company. This was not the last report of karoshi; the problem continues today. In Japan from March 2014 to 2015, almost 1,500 cases of karoshi were reported, most of them occurring in typically high-stress industries such as health care, social services, shipping, and construction.

Work-related illness and suicide have also affected the United States. 70% of American workers have some sort of stress-related illness, and the odds of having a heart attack rise by 33% on Monday mornings. In the U.S., more people die on Monday around 9:00 a.m. (when the typical office job work week starts) than at any other time of the week. Karoshi is not some victimless occurrence — over the years, it has taken the lives of many.

Companies have been made aware of and acted on this issue to some extent, but have not done nearly enough. Toyota, for example, set a rule forbidding employees from working more than 360 hours overtime each year, and some corporations have implemented what they call “no overtime days.” This policy requires the employee to go home after working a certain number of hours, but the strenuous workload causes some workers to stay in the building with the lights off and continue to work regardless. This is known as 風呂敷 (furoshiki), or cloaked overtime.

On top of all of this, the issue of karoshi is dismissed by the younger generations. For instance, karoshi is belittled by a video game called Karoshi, where the ultimate goal is to kill your character by overworking them. Turning the death of thousands into a video game is not only insensitive and cruel, but also perfectly illustrates how the world trivializes the subject of karoshi.

In a world that is driven by work, it is extremely important that we prevent it from killing our citizens. Too many deaths have been caused by the extreme stress and workload placed upon people just trying to make a living. While other health problems are more widely known or affect more people, karoshi has the potential to become an even more massive problem on a global scale, especially as it becomes harder with each generation to thrive in a worsening economic landscape. The death of thousands of people each year cannot continue to be passed over, tossed aside in today’s media like another Kardashian article. We must do all we can to combat it now before it gets any worse.


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