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The Political Economy of Japanese Karoshi (Death from Overwork)

Authors:
Hitotsubashi University Repository
Title The Political Economy of Japanese Karoshi (Death
from Overwork)
Author(s) Kato, Tetsuro
Citation Hitotsubashi journal of social studies, 26(2): 41-
54
Issue Date 1994-12
Type Departmental Bulletin Paper
Text Version publisher
URL http://hdl.handle.net/10086/8374
Right
Hitotsubashi Journal of Social Studies 26 (1994) 41-54. C The Hitotsubashi Academy
THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF JAPANESE
KAROSHI (DEATH FROM OVERWORK)*
TETSURO KATO
Abstract
The Japanese Company System is often seen as a possible model of a democratic and
participatory workplace. However, the ILO World Labor Report 1993 revealed that
Japanese workers suffered from long working hours and even from KAROSHI (death
from overwork). The average working hours in Japan of 2,124 hours per year in 1990
were 500 hours longer than in France or Germany. This comparison is, however, based
only on the available official statistics. The real working situation in Japan should be
considered in terms of so-called service overtime-work (unpaid overtime-work), the gender
and company-size gaps, the team-based competition among workers, the weakness of trade
unions, and the lack of governmental regulation over private companies. I would like
to discuss such issues related to the Japanese workplace and show the alternative idea of
Ergology, rather than Ergonomics, similar to the alternative concept of Ecology over
Economics.
I. Long Working Hours in Japan and the Ka,'oshi
The ILO Report on Japanese Karoshi
The Japanese company system is often seen as a possible model of a democratic and
participatory workplace. However, the ILO World Labour Report of 1993 showed us,
that Japanese workers suffered from heavy stress associated with long working hours, and
even from Karoshi (death from overwork). The ILO report concluded that:
"Stress has become one of the most serious health issues of the twentieth century-a
problem not just for individuals in terms of physical and mental disability, but for employers
and governments who have started to assess the financial damage."
"Job burnout is frequentiy associated with people who have become 'workaholics,'
* This Paper was prepared for a presentation at the Panel MT4.2.1 : "Democracy, Economy and the Work-
place" (Chair : W. Rand Smith) of the XVlth World Congress of the International Political Science Assoc-
iation, 20-25 August 1994, International Congress Centrum. Berlin.
The author would like to thank Dr. Rob Steven of the University of New South Wales, Australia, for his
helpful comments and Mr. Garren Hansen for his editorial assistance in English.
42 HITOTSUBASHI JOURhIAL OF SOCIAL STUD]ES [December
working up to 80 hours a week. Such long hours can strain the physical system even though
the damage may not be evident until later. Nor is there any evidence that the working
Iong hours will produce a corresponding increase in output. Japanese office workers, for
example often stay at their desks to demonstrate loyalty to the company. As measured
by the goods that can be bought for one hour's labour, productivity is much higher else-
where-46 per cent higher in France, for example, and 39 per cent in Germany."
"In Japan this issue has been brought to a head recently by c]aims related to the karoshi
-death from overwork. The Japanese work longer hours than most other industrial nations:
officially 2,044 hours in 1990 (compared with 1,646 in France, for example). In fact the
working year is generally much longer because of unpaid 'service overtime.' A survey by
Keidanren, a federation of employers' organizations, indicated that 88 per cent companies
rely on such overtime. Many Japanese bank officials, for example, work 3,000 hours per
year-the equivalent of 12 hours a day for 250 days. And a survey by the Institute for
Science of Labour jndicated that the number of hours worked at one major insurance firm
had risen from nine hours a day 15 years previously to ll hours 20 minutes in 1991."
"Such long hours inevitably take their toll. One psychiatrist in 1992 reported, for
example, that the number of patients consulting him for stress problems had quadrupled
over the previous ten years. According to Dr. Tetsunojo Uehata (who coined the word
Karoshi), the problems first emerged at the end of 1970s when Japanese companies cut their
payrolls in response to the oil crisis and increased the load on employees."
(ILO World Labour Report 1993. Geneva 1993, pp. 65, 67)
In fact, the actual working hours of manufacturing workers in Japan, 2,124 hours per
year in 1990 according to official statistics, were approximately 500 hours longer than in
France or Germany. This comparison, however, is based only on official statistics. As
the ILO report suggests, real working conditions in Japan should also reflect the so-called
service overtime work (unpaid overtime work), the gender and company-size gaps, the
team-based competition, the weakness of trade unions, and company-oriented govern-
mental regulations.
I would like now to discuss such issues related to the Japanese workplace and present
the idea of ergology, as an alternative to ergonomics, similar to the alternative concept of
ecology over economics.
Which is a Disease ?
The economic growth of the 20th century has been so tremendous that while great
material productive forces have been created. the ecological environments of the earth
are rapidly being destroyed. The tempo of Japanese development has, Iikewise, been ex-
ceptional. Many business managers and politicians abroad admire the achievement of
Japan's successful development, describing it as a miracle, and fear that this development
may bring about the Japanization of their country.
Certain economists sometimes liken economic growth to a healthy body, and in adopt-
ing this approach diagnose stagnant growth as a disease. These economists coined the
terms, 'British Disease' to describe the pressure on Britain's economy caused by workers'
wage increases, 'Swedish Disease' to describe Sweden's welfare burdens, and recently
¥
l 994] THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF JAPANESE KAROSHI 43
'Korean Disease' to describe the decline of diligent work ethics as a result of the marked
increase in middle class workers in Korea. The term 'Japanese Disease' has now been
applied to describe the current economic situation in Japan following the collapse of the
bubble economy caused by necessary restructuring of Japan's economic system and adjust-
ment to meet international policies.
However, one of the most important questions we must ask ourselves at this point is
whether this 24 hour working rhythm, diagnosed as healthy by western practitioners, is
not really a disease. Would oriental or Muslim practitioners make the same diagnosis as
their western counterparts? Is not the golden age of economic growth which western
medical scientists diagnosed as healthy surely a disease, due to the accumulation of stress
at work and symptoms of arteriosclerosis that it has thus far produced?
In drawing our conclusion we should perhaps consider whether a stressful working
life with little free time that may bring great material gain is more healthy than a simple
but stressless life with a comfortable amount of free time.
This paper will examine these questions by comparing working conditions in Japan
with conditions in other countries, and by an examination of the standard of economic
democratization based on ecological and human ergological criteria as opposed to indus-
trial economic or ergonomic criteria.
Wllat Is "Ergology"?
The word "ergo]ogy" may be new for some readers. "Ergology" rs denved from the
Greek word "ergon " which means work or labour. The study of ergology originated in
Germany, but development of this field has essentially taken place in Japan. At the begin-
ning of the 20th century, a famous German biologist, Dr. Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, named
the physiology of nature "ecology," and the physrology of human bemgs "ergology "
In Japan the word "ergology" was introduced by human anthropologists in the 1950s
at the beginning of Japan's so-called 'miracle' period of growth. During the rapid economic
growth of the 1960s, Japanese people faced serious environmental pollution and many
industrial injuries.
In 1968, Japanese natural scientists, concerned about the trying working conditions
brought about by this rapid industrialization, formed a small academic society dedicated
to the study of Human Ergology. Thereafter, the society expanded to form a nationwide
research group whose aim was to study ideal working rhythms and conditions from a hu-
manitarian perspective. The group's work involved such things as measuring the working
tempo and rhythm of factories by employing the circadian rhythm theory, and bringing
about an awareness of the vocational diseases brought on by long working hours and the
shift work system.
The association today has approximately 300 members belonging to various profes-
sions, including anthropology, biology, sports science, medicine and industrial sociology.
A quarterly English journal entitled "Journal ofHuman Ergology" is also published by the
Human Ergology Society in Tokyo and is jointly edited with the South-East Asian Ergono-
mics Society.
The question I would like to raise at this point is why Japanese natural scientists have
this concern with ergology? The answer, in short, is that this interest clearly stems from
44 HITOTSUBASHI JOURNAL OF SOCIAL STUDIES [December
the great change in Japan's social environment which occurred during the period of rapid
economic growth. The rapid and unregulated industrialization of the 1950s and '60s
brought with it environmental pollutilon and disease such as Minamata-disease and Itai-
itai-disease, problems conventional economic theory was not equipped to treat.
Some humane economists adopted the new theory of ecology, searching with natural
scientists and medical doctors for solutions to urban air pollution. Further, a group of
lawyers created a new concept in human rights to defend victims of pollution, the right to
environment.
Moreover, Japanese working people also suffered a high degree of industrial injury
and vocational disease in factories as well as in offices. Conventional western ergonomics,
or human engineering, also treated the working environment, but it examined only eco-
nomic efficiency and productivity.
Ergology was oirginally a part of ergonomics, but it diverged in order to analyse ele-
ments of industrial labour in terms of the more essential criteria of physiology and work-
science. Ecology examined environmental problems associated with the production cycles
of orthodox economic theories, air pollution and waste cycles for example. Ergologists,
likewise, sought to apply such theories, but only in terms of the natural and social limits
of human labour.
Ergologists now concern themselves with a number of topics related to working con-
ditions in Japan, such as office design, the speed of factory beltconveyers, the decllne of
eyesight resulting from computer usage, and of course the problem of Karoshi, death from
physical and/or mental exhaustion associated with the long hours and demanding work
of Japan's company-centered society.
What is Karoshi?
Perhaps many of you are familiar with the relatively new Japanese word, 'Karoshi.'
It is now in use not only in Japan, but also in advanced capitalist countries, just like the
words KANBAN. KEIRETSU, NEMA WASHI and KAIZEN. The word Karoshi has
come to symbolize Japan's workaholick society.
Karoshi is a socio-medical term used particularly in applications for workers' com-
pensation, especially in cases of cardio-vascular disease brought on by excessive workloads
and occupational stress. Dr. Tetsunojo Uehata, who coined the word Karoshi, has defined
it as "a permanent disability or death brought on by worsening high blood pressure or
arteriosclerosis resulting in diseases of the blood vessels in the brain, such as cerebral hemor-
rhage, subarachnoidal hemorrhage and cerebral infarction, and acute heart failure and
mycardial infarction induced by conditions such as ischemic heart disease (IHD)" (T. Ue-
hata, A Medical Study of Karoshi, in, National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi,
KAROSHI, Mado-sha, Tokyo 1990, p. 98).
Although there are no official government statistics on Karoshi in Japan, the word
Karoshi has been widely used particularly by lawyers who have consulted victims through
a "Karoshi Hotline Network" established in 1988. Lawyers on the National Defense
Counsel for Victims of Karoshi estirDate that, annually, about 10,000 workers are victims
of Karoshi, a figure similar to the annual number of deaths due to motor vehicle accidents
in Japan.
1994] THE POLITICAL EcoNoMY OE JAPANESE KAROSHI 45
Data received by the "Karoshi Hotline Network" from June 1988 to June 1993 have
been compiled into Table 1. The victims of Karoshi came from various occupations, were
both male and female, as well as bluecollar and whitecollar workers. The three occupa-
tions which figured highest in the data were drivers, journalists and machinery workers.
However, recently bank officials, school teachers, construction workers, and foreign migrant
workers have begun to figure more prominently in the data received by the Network. Di-
rectors and managers, including some Presidents of big companies, also accounted for a
nun,ber of the cases reported to the Network.
TABLE 1. SUMMARY OF 3,132 CASES REPORTED THE KAROSHI HOTLlNE NETWORK
FROM JUNE 1988 To 1993
1 Contents of Consultation Total
Workers' Compensation
(Death Cases)
Health Care
Others
3, 132
2, 265 (72. 5 )
(1 , 466) (47. O %)
797 (25. 6)
59 ( 1.9%)
2 Clients Total
Workers
Wives
Other relatives
Trade Unions
Others
3, 062
633 (20. 7 %)
l,549 (50. 6)
560 (18.3O
32 ( 1.0;)
288 ( 9.4)
3 Age Total
under 30 year old
30-39 years
409 years
50-59 years
over 60 years old
D.K.
3, 062
197 ( 6. 5)
362 (11.8%)
794 (25. 9 %)
797 (26. O%)
174 ( 5.7%)
739 (24. I )
4 Sex Total
Male
Female
D.K.
2, 265
2, 136 (94. 3
102 ( 4.5)
27 ( 1.2;)
5 Occupation Total
Director
M an ager
Manufacturing Worker
Office Worker
Driver
Technical Worker
Governmental Employee
2, 265
96 ( 4. 2(;)
454 (20. O%)
572 (25. 2%)
491 (21.7%)
220 ( 9. 7%)
179 ( 7.9;)
160 ( 7.1%)
6 Name of Disease Total
Cerebral hemorrhage
Subarachnoidal hemorrhage
Cerebral thrombus, infarction
Myocardial infarction
Heart failure
Others
2, 265
363 (16.0%)
372 (16.4%)
149 ( 6.6%)
225 ( 9.9)
393 (17.4%)
763 (33. 7%)
source : Summary of Karoshi Hotline, as of June 1 1, 1993.
46 HITOTSUBASHI JOURNAL OF SOCIAL STUDIES [Decembcr
Long Working Hours
Why is the incidence of Karoshi so high in Japan? The main reason is clearly related
to the disproportionately longer working hours in Japan. According to an official inter-
national comparison with other advanced countries conducted by the Ministry of Labour,
Japanese working hours per year are about 10C200 hours more than in the US or in Britain,
and 400-500 hours more than in Germany, France or North European countries (see Table
These officil statistics, however, reflect neither the real situation nor the feelings of
ordinary working people in Japan.
Firstly, these statistics are derived from the average working hours of firms with over
5 employees. However, there is a significant gap of working conditions between big com-
panies and small ones. In Japan we have many small companies with under 30 employees.
In fact, people working for small businesses comprise about 60 per cent of the workforce.
Further, these workers often work longer hours and harder than their big business counter-
parts, as many small business companies cannot operate on a regular five day work week.
Under the pressure of the subcontract system to big business, these small companies must
often open even on holidays.
Secondly, these statistics were calculated from official figures received from the various
companies. However, Japanese companies usually regulate official overtime work in order
to reduce the cost of overtime pay. While companies regulate official overtime, they often
demand of their employees what is known as service overtime, overtime without pay. Ac-
cording to the ILO Report, this overtime can reach up to 100 hours per month for bank
officials.
TABLE 2. INTERNATIONAL COMPARISON OF ACTUAL WORKlNG HOURS
(Estimated values for 1990, Iimited primarily to workers in manufacturing
and production industries)
Hours actually worked
1990 1 979 1970 Overtime work
1990 Days worked
1990
Ja pan
United States
United Kingdom
Germany (West)
France
lceland
Italy
Norway
Denmark
Finland
Netherlands
Sweden
2, 124 hrs.
1, 948
l , 953
1 , 598
1 , 683
2. 016
l , 717
l , 650
1, 635
1 , 608
l , 584
l . 472
2, 159 2, 269
1 , 907 1,913
l, 886 1 , 939
l. 717 1 , 889
1, 712 1 , 872
(no data)
1 , 738 1 , 905
l , 572 1, 794
1, 639 1, 829
(no data)
l , 669 1 , 893
1. 513 l . 744
219 hrs.
192
l 87
99
247 days
226
219
208
211
sources: Data for Japan, US, UK, France, Germany in 1990 comes from the Labour Standard Bureau,
Ministry of Labour, Japan. Data for other Countries in 1 990 comes from the SAf, Fecta om Sveriges ekonomi
1992, Stockholm, p. 13. Data for 1970 and 1979 are from J.B. Shore, Workers of the World, Unwind, Tech-
nology Review, Nov./Dec. 1991, MIT Press, p. 26.
1994] THE POLITICAL EcoNOMY or JAPANESE KAROSHI 47
According to another official survey in which the workers themselves were interviewed
(by the Management and Coordination Agency of the Government), the average working
hours per year came to over 2,400. From this figure we can estimate a worker's average
service overtime is approximately 350 hours per year.
Thirdly, the official statistics do not reflect the difference in working hours between
male and female workers. Female workers in Japan, for the most part, work only part-time
and in a clerical capacity. These positions do not generally demand the same amount of
overtime as positions held by male workers. If we view only the statistics for adult male
workers as provided by another governmental source, the actual working hours per year
increase to about 2,600, 500 hours more than indicated by official statistics.
Additionally, it is well known that housing is both limited and excesslvely expensive
in central city areas where the companies are located. Thus, workers often spend over
2 hours a day commuting from their homes to their workplaces. A typical Japanese worker
leaves home at 7 in the morning and returns after 1 1 at night. Some call this lifestyle "Seven-
Eleven."
We thus estimate that 8 to 10 million Japanese workers, or one fourth of the male work-
force, work over 3,000 hours annually, and amongst them are surely many potential Karoshi
victims.
II. Non-Decision-Making by the Japanese Government
Witllout Officia/ Acknowledgement, No Policy on Karoshi
Karoshi is of course a socio-medical phenomenon. It is now so widelv. known in Japan
that about a half of all Japanese answer that they (or their famlly members) feel anxious
over the prospect of death from overwork (The Yomiuri Shinbu,1, February 13, 1993).
However, curiously enough, there has not been any official acknowledgement from
the government on "Karoshi," which has not appeared in any of the official papers published
by the Japanese Government. The Annua! Economic Survey of Japan, Annual Report on
tlle Nationa/ Llfe for the Fisca! Year. Annual Report on Labour, or Annua! Report on Health
and Welfare, were all published without any mention of "Karoshi."
Japan's Ministry of Labour informally protested to the ILO when the ILO printed
the word "Karoshi" in its 1993 Report, because the Japanese Government does not form-
ally acknowledge the existence of Karoshi. One reason given for this is that the Japanese
Medical Science Society has not yet used the term "Karoshi" as a official cause of death.
Medical doctors have up to now used a more neutral word "Totsuzen-shi (Sudden Death)"
instead, as "Sudden Death" can occur from multiple causes and cannot be defined solely
as death from overwork. Amongst the statistics produced by the Ministry of Health and
Welfare for their annual report, no figures were given for the incidence of "Karoshi," refiect-
ing the government's lack of policy on the issue.
Perhaps the reason for the government's failure to acknowledge "Karoshi" can be
traced to the liability they would assume under the Workers' Compensation Insurance
system. If the Ministry of Labour were to admit death from overwork as an official cause
48 HITOTSUBASHI JOURNAL OF SOCIAL STUDIES [December
of death, the Workers' Compensation Insurance Scheme would be put under great pressure.
I should at first map out the general framework of working conditions under Japanese
Labour Law.
The Labour Standards Act without Genera/ Standards
The general framework of working conditions in Japan is set out in the Labour Stand-
ards Act, which was revised 1993. It states that the maximum working hours is 8 hours
a day and 40 hours a week. However, there are many loopholes in this law.
For example, this law cannot be applied to all workers. In some service sectors (for
example, transportation) and small to medium sized companies, the regulations cannot
be applied. As over 64 per cent of the working population in Japan work for such com-
panies, we find many "exceptions" to the Labour Standards Act, with people working in
excess of the prescribed 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week.
Further, there is no official regulation limiting overtime work. However, it would
be advisable for employer and employee representatives, preferably trade unions, to meet
and reach agreement on limits to overtime. Such an agreement would also facilitate clearer
definition and higher statistical accuracy on working hours. And within the limits on hours
set by the agreement, workers should obey their employers' request for overtime work.
It is well-known that Japanese trade unions are organized at the company level, and
the unions are weak and often agree to things like limitless overtime work. For example,
one agreement stated that, "overtime work should be limited to no more than 5 hours a
day for males and 2 hours for females " but "in the case of male workers during 'special
busy' times required for production, maintenance or repair, the limit can be 15 hours a day."
This agreement actually means that the employer can order workers to work up to 23 hours
a day!
Moreover, current overtime pay rates under the Labour Standards Act are "more than
25 per cent of the normal wage and the premium for late night work shall be more than
50 per cent of normal wage." This "normal wage" in the Japanese context excludes things
like family allowance, transportation allowances and bonuses, which play a great role in
the Japanese wage system. For this reason overtime pay rates in Japan are exceptionally
low in comparison with other countries. Employers however rely on this overtime in order
to adapt their production to current business trends, and thus cLn generally count on their
workers to be flexible enough to work overtime when requested.
Thus, we may conclude that the Japanese management system is protected by govern-
ment policies which allow employers to arbitrarily determine their employee's overtime
hours.
The Ineffective Workers ' Compensation SJ'stem
The government has hitherto taken a negative view towards claims for workers' com-
pensation by Karoshi victims or their dependents.
The basic role of the workers' compensation system is to compensate victims by pro-
viding income and other necessities to maintain them and their dependents at an acceptable
standard of living, with the further function of attempting to discourage the future occur-
THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF JAPANESE KAROSHI
rence of similar injuries or diseases by means of its insurance system and active investigation
of working conditions. The criteria governing compensation coverage, its content and the
amounts of funding allotted to the compensation system, must all be tailored to fulfilling
these goals.
The reality, however, is that the Ministry of Labour seems to be attempting to restrict
the payment of benefits to Karoshi victims. The Ministry of Labour's criteria for com-
pensation eligibility are particularly strict, but the Ministry is known to actually be em-
ploying an even stricter formula that appears in a confidential manual for inhouse use only.
There are also administrative barriers for victims to overcome, such as time-consuming
proceedings and the task of gathering the necessary evidence, a process which pro¥'es to
be a tremendous burden on the applicants filing claims. The companies to which the
victims once belonged, naturally wishing to avoid any publicity which might give them a
bad name in the public eye, tend not to help in a victim's claim for compensation.
The legislation guiding worker's compensation claims in Japan until 1987 provided
mainly for drivers in traffic accident, for miners in cave-in accidents, and for the industrial
injuries of machinery workers, but not for death from overwork. The dependents of a work-
er, who died after 24 hours of particularly hard work, were only granted an insurance pay-
out . In 1987, the law was revised, but the basic problems still remain. According to our
ergological research, the accumulation of physical and mental stress due to hard work over
a long period of time is a significant cause of Karoshi. The guideline of new law, however,
states that the only acceptable cases of death from overwork for which insurance may be
claimed are when workers work twice the hours of a regular working week without a holi-
day, or triple the regular working hours the day before dying. Thus, if someone works
5 days over 16 hours a day but has one holiday and then dies, any claim for insurance would
be unsuccessful. Fo]lowing the revision of this law, dissatisfied fami]ies of victims and
lawv_ ers took their complaints to court, but they failed to bring about any further revision
to the law.
The number of applicants claiming insurance by reason of Karoshi annually is about
500, which is only 5 per cent of the l0,000 victims of Karoshi each year. Further, of those
applicants, the number who make successful claims are only between 30 to 40 per year, that
is, under 10 per cent of the total applications and less than one per cent of annual Karoshi
victims.
Thus, in the eyes of the Japanese government and politicians, there is no Karoshi prob-
lem at a]1 in contemporary Japan. Indeed, official statistics do not register figures on
Karoshi and there seems to be some deliberate effort on the behalf of policy makers to pre-
vent this issue from making the government's agenda. This is a typical case of "non-de-
crs]on making" as defined by P. Bachrach & M. Baraz (Power and Poverty, New York 1970)
or of the "concealing mechanism of the state apparatus" as put forward by Claus Offe
(Strukturprob!eme des kapitalistischen Staats, Frankfurt/M 1972).
50 HITOTSUBASHI JOURNAL OF SOCIAL STUDIES [December
III. Socral Effects and Determinants of Long Working Hours
Five Flaws in Japanese Society
The long working hours of the average Japanese worker also appear to have some
negative ramifications for Japanese society as a whole. Professor John Dower of MIT
once characterized five flaws he believed to be evident in Japan's society related to Japan's
rise to economic superpower status.
The first of these is "wealth without pleasure.' While Japan is a massive producer
it has little time for the consumption of these products. This production has made the
country wealthy, but people cannot gain pleasure from just their incomes or from the nation's
wealth. One Australian trade union publication illusrated a satirical figure of the worka-
holic Japanese (see the next page).
The second of these flaws is "equality without freedom. ' In Japanese society most
people earn enough to enjoy a relatively comfortable standard of living. The gap In salaries
between managers and average workers is perhaps smaller than in the US or other advanced
countries. However, this type of equality is too uniform. Workers rarely express their own
opinions or exhibit any originality in their work. In fact, this is often discouraged.
This lack of freedom is further displayed during political election campaigns. During
elections it is not uncommon for companies to 'recommend' to their employees certain
political parties or candidates with which that company has some affiliation. Workers who
are reluctant to follow the company's recommendation may be considered not to be in
harmony with the objectives of the company and even receive a cut in their bonus as a means
of re-education. In short, Japanese workers are expected to act in a uniform manner with-
out expresslng any individuality. . . . . .
The third flaw rs "hlgh level education wrthout onglnalrty." Japanese children attend
school approximately 240 days per year, 2 months more than in the US and 3 months more
than in France. This figure is very close to the number of working days per year for com-
pany workers. Japanese children study hard and have a reputation for exceptional results
in international education competitions, especially in mathematics and history. However,
children are taught a very standardized syllabus, sufficient for entering a good university
and later becoming a good company worker.
The recruitment system of Japanese companies is perhaps different to that of other
countries in that the professional training received at university in any given field of study
has no bearing on a freshman's recruitment. Rather, a company recruits its new employees
based on the name, or more precisely the ranking of the university they attended. Uni-
versity rankings are determined by the difficulty of the instituticn's entry examination. For
this reason school children must study hard from kindergarten until university entry in order
to ensure a place at a highly ranked institution.
In the battie to win a place at a well regarded university, school children often attend
cramming or supplementary schools known as "Juku" in addition to their regular schools.
This system breeds a highly educated workforce, but is not conductive to the development
l 994] THE POLrrICAL EcoNoMY or JAPANESE KAROSHI
THE OVERWORKED JAPANESE AS SEEN BY AUSTRALIA
51
Japanese workers are
too fast,as in a racing
malfunctioning brakes.
runnmg
car with
O¥'ertime has now become keep their jobs to work har-
part of the culture of Japanese der and longer hours.
¥vorking life. Japanese ll'or- Rising land prices in the
kers, Iike geisha girls ha¥'e not cities force Japanese to move
yet learned how to say"no" to to the suburbs and commute
bacl{ to their office each day.
employers demands.
personnel In Tokyo, taking three hours
White-collar
THE SALARYMAN'S HEALTH
HEADACIIE FRO¥. I ,{
s.' r_*'
HAN'GO¥rER *:!;* J MYOPIA FROM
_ ・ pAPER¥VORK
STIFF SHOULDERS _e  '91 SORE-THROAT
FROlvl DESK ¥VoRK FROlvi KARAOKE
 ' CHAlN-SMOKERS'
 LUNGS
WEAK LI¥rER FROM
HEAVY DRINTKING .. BUTTON-1'USHERS'
VD FROM    e DIGITITIS
"ENTER'I'AINlvIENT"
H AE¥. ・,IORR HOIDS
FRO,. 'I LONG ATHLETE'S FOOT
SI'l'TING HOURS o- FRO*M HUMiD JAPANESE
SUlIMERS
Source.' The Metal Workers, Organ of the metals and Engineering Workers
Union, November 1997, p. 19.
of originality or individual talent.
The fourth of these flaws is "familyism without real family bonds." A husband may
work hard to provide for the well being of his wife and children, but in doing this, is left
with little quality time with his family. Generally, the working father will only be able
to eat dinner with his wife and children on a Sunday night. Moreover, upon being trans-
S2 HITOTSUBASHI JOURNAL OF SOaAL STUDIES [December
ferred to another city, it is common for the father to leave his wife and children at home
and take up a separate residence (Tanshin-funin in Japanese).
Japan has a relatively low rate of divorce, which can perhaps be largely attributed to
the economic dependence of wives on their husbands' income. Japanese society may, in
some terms, be described as family-oriented, but in actual fact family life has all but col-
lapsed due to the society's overbearing emphasis on work.
The final and fifth flaw characterized by Professor Dower is "economic superpower
status without leadership in the world." From a political perspective, due to lack of free
time to consider political or public matters, Japanese people cannot fully utilize the demo-
cratic institutions given to them during the American occupation. The Japanese govern-
ment, and politics itself, is too economy-orientated and fails to address key national and
international political issues.
The average worker shows little interest in diplomatic or international issues except
when they relate to the domestic economy or more precisely the well-being of their company.
Politics is a sphere monopolized by professional politicians, not statesmen, because they
have the time to treat public problems and because they are agents of the business world.
However, without free time for ordinary citizens to debate public issues, there can be no
real democracy.
Four Determinants of Long Working Hours in Japan
Why is it that Japanese people work so hard? Are they very diligent by nature, their
national character of collectivism? I do not take such a cultural approach. The historical
background may be important, but there is no clear evidence that Japanese people before
the Meiji Restoration in 1868 worked harder than the people of other pre-industrial soc-
ieties. I will now treat what I believe to be the four essential factors that determine con-
temporary Japan's long working hours.
The first is the weak power of workers' organizations and their inability to launch
successful protests to reduce working hours. Japanese trade unions are isolated within
each large company, and there are generally no unions for workers in small companies.
The unions were, however, successful in securing higher wages for their members during
Japan's period of rapid economic growth, but they made no effort to bring about shorter
working hours.
The second factor relates to the Japanese company's management system. Within
any given company, strong competition within industry sectors, among sections within
firms and factories, and among team-based small groups are the engine powering its pro-
duction process. This organized competition lies at the heart of Japanese management
practices. I have discussed these aspects of Japanese management in more depth in my
book published in English, entitled "Is Japanese Managemnt Post-fordist? (edited with
Rob Steven, Mado-sha, Tokyo 1993).
The third point determining Japan's long working hours is the non-decision-making
by government in regard to working hours. In its 5 year economic plan under the Miyazawa
Cabinet, the Japanese government declared that it would bring about 1,800 working hour
year. However, the government effected no policy or regu]ation geared towards restricting
overtime work or reducing the incidence of Karoshi. Industria] relations in Japan are
19941 THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF JAPANESE KAROSHI 53
perhaps the most "free-market" or "non-regulated" sphere of a company's operation, with
only minimal "administrative guidance" from the government.
The fourth point, paradoxically, relates to international pressure. Japanese companies
and the government appeared to examine the prospect of reducing working hours only after
attacks from the US and other western governments who argued against the "unequal com-
petition in the world economy" that Japan's disproportionately high working hours was
causing. For example, the five-day working-week system ofnational universities was adopted
nly after US-Japan trade friction reached boiling point. Further, the Miyazawa cabinet's
plan to reduce the annual working hours to 1,800 as a part of their 5 year economic plan
was also a product of international pressure.
However, Japan's integration into the world economy has meant that bank officials
and workers of securities or insurance companies must keep a constant watch on the world
market so that they may adjust to changes in financial markets and to foreign exchange
rate fluctuations. Such workers, as well as those of trading companies and transnational
corporations must often be prepared to work 24 hours a day to adjust to the movements
in world markets, from the Tokyo, the New York to the London markets. This need for
24 hours alertness quite obvious]y causes tremendous mental stress and can be strongly
linked to the recent increase in young Karoshi victims from banks or securities companies.
IV. Conclusron From E,gonormcs to Ergology
The collapse of the bubble economy may have played a role in the slight reduction of
official working hours from 2,052 in 1990 to 1,972 in 1992. However, it did not lead to
a corresponding reduction in actual working hours. According to research conducted
by some lawyers and ergologists, service overtime in fact grew following the reduction
of paid-overtime. A small reduction of official working hours was also seen immediately
following the oil crisis of 1973-75, when Japanese companies employed what was described
as a "shape up management" style in order to survive in the world market.
The most important issue confronting the Japanese workplace today is the need to
change the present conception of labour. In order to bring about economic democracy
in Japan, working hours need to be reduced and the incidence of Karoshi eliminated.
A certain degree of international pressure calling for "fair competition in the world
market" might be welcomed for this purpose. However, outside pressures often create
nationalistic reactions from within the country. The undertaking of an ergological study
into Japanese worklng conditions and the promotion of increased free time are two possible
vehicles that may be used to change the current conception of labour.
The lawyers of the Karoshi-Hotline-Network further proposed some alternative ways
to survive in Japan's workaholic society. These proposals appear to be sounder than the
government's five year plan to reduce to 1,800 the official number of working hours per year.
The following is a summary of these alternative proposals.
(1) For overworked workers,
Your company will run without your work. Make time to break your tense work cycle!
Do not work through 24 hours a day! Make sure you give yourself sufficient free
54 HITOTSUBASHI JOURNAL OF SOCIAL STUDIES [December
time daily!
Find time to talk with your wife and revive yourself at home with your children!
Determine your own overtime, rather than have it determined by your company! After
five is your own time! Do not rely so much on such aids as stamina drinks to get through
the day!
Take a rest before you too become one of the victims of Karoshi !
House work and nursing should be a cooperative effort with your husband ! Divide
the household chores!
Dinner should be a pleasurable time for all the family! Please make a happy house-
hold !
Try to ensure that there is good communication between parent and children!
Make a family culture together with your husband!
(3) For you and your fellow workers,
Decide with each other on a no-overtime day each week, and negotiate a regular work-
ing cycle !
Do not make an agreement that allows fiexible overtime hours! Pressure your union
to raise the rate of pay for overtime!
Attempt to realize your 1,800 working hours per year by such means as suggesting
worksharing schemes !
The employment of more workers under this scheme should allow you to take annual
holidays freely without fear of overburdening your fellow team members!
Bring the Japanese Constitution into your company! Human rights and freedoms
must be revived at your workplace !
(4) For a contfortable society,
Complete realization of a 40 hour working week by rigid application of the Labour
Standards Act !
Implement a five-day work week system both at the workplace and at school !
Restrict any kind of overtime through strong administrative regulations over work[ng
time !
Reform the standard of Workers' Compensation Insurance for Karoshi victims !
More time at home for men, more time at work for women! Real equality between
men and women begins with the elimination of disproportionate working hours!
My conclusion is now clear. Democracy in the workplace is heavily dependent on
political democracy. Further, for political democracy, the elimination of excessive working
hours is crucial, at least in contemporary Japan. Moreover, to realize a free and comfort-
able ecological society, we must revise our conception of labour from the present ergonomic
perspective to an ergological one.
HITOTSLTBASHI UNIVERSITY
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