Government statistics released this week show that legal cases filed over "karoshi" - the Japanese term that means death from overwork - soared to 1,456 in the year that ended in March 2015. The situation is being exacerbated, analysts point out, by a shortage of workers in several sectors, including healthcare, social services and construction. In the quarter of a century that has passed since the bubble burst, long hours, unpaid overtime, shorter holidays and fewer perks have become the norm at Japanese workplaces.
"There are lots of reasons why we are seeing this problem becoming worse, but it really all boils down to the excessive sense of competition in Japanese society," said Hiroshi Kawahito, president of the Kawahito Law Office in Tokyo, and a member of the National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi. Since Japan's economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, the economy has stagnated, meaning that companies have been forced to implement downsizing measures and take on more temporary workers instead of full-time salaried staff. At the same time, full-time workers were expected to put in longer hours and came under stronger pressure to perform," he said. "Their fear was that if they didn't they would lose their full-time status, so they endured the situation." He continued, "Basically, the problem is that Japanese labor laws have no teeth. European countries have limits on the hours that employees can work and those are enforced. We have the same limits in Japan, but companies get around them by signing agreements with workers and unions." Fearful for their jobs, workers have caved in to companies' demands and a 12-hour working day is considered quite normal, Kawahito added. "If we look at mental health cases, we can see a sharp increase in reports of depression among workers brought on by pressure in the workplace."
Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, says Japan's working conditions are "atrocious." He explained "Japanese people put in punishingly long hours, the work they do is generally tedious, their vacations are short, there is immense pressure on them, and the corporate culture means they are expected to spend a lot of time drinking with their colleagues when they do finally get out of the office."
Kawahito believes, the impact on Japanese society will be dramatic. "Younger workers are obliged to put in so many hours at their companies now that they don't have time for a boyfriend or a girlfriend," he points out. "It's all work, work, work. That, in turn, means they are getting married much later - if they get married at all - and they're not having children. The government says it is worried about population decline and a shrinking workforce with more older people, but they are not doing enough to help people who do want to have a normal family life."