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More Overworked Japanese Killing Selves

ASSOCIATED PRESS

In the 1980s, the notoriously hard-working Japanese coined a term to describe workers who die suddenly after putting in extremely long hours. The word is “karoshi,” or death from overwork.

Japan has a new word for the ‘90s: “karojisatsu,” suicides from overwork.

Spurred by an economic slide throughout the decade, the number of such suicides has swelled to an estimated 1,000 or more a year, according to a group of lawyers involved in lawsuits over work-related deaths.

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Officially, the phenomenon is still a gray area.

Before 1995, there were only one or two applications at the Labor Ministry for compensation in such cases. In 1995 and 1996, they hit double-digits. In 1997, the total was 22.

But officials acknowledge that the vast majority of overwork-related suicides do not lead to legal action, and such deaths are not differentiated from other suicides. Police put the number of all work-related suicides at about 1,300 a year, but have no classification for suicide from overwork.

Still, experts say the problem is clear.

“Suicides from overwork are becoming a serious problem,” said Kazunari Tamaki, a lawyer representing dozens of clients seeking damages for job-related deaths of family members. “The myth that Japanese management is benevolent is full of lies.”

The victims of “karojisatsu” range from workers toiling at greasy factories to businessmen sent abroad on difficult missions. What they tend to have in common is having worked 10 to 12 hours a day, with no days off, for months.

Oddly enough, they rarely blame their companies, Tamaki said. Instead, they leave behind notes apologizing for not having done better.

Tadashi Shimonaka, 46, was typical.

Shimonaka clocked at least 80 hours of overtime a month at Hitachi Zosen, a shipbuilder.

The firm had been slashing the work force for years, and Shimonaka had no choice but to work alone on its rudder design project. He often complained of chest pains and told his wife the overwork was killing him.

One Monday in March 1993, he left for work as usual. His drowned body was found on a nearby beach two days later.

“I no longer have the strength to go on. I am really sorry,” he said in his suicide note.

This past December, Shimonaka’s wife sued.

“The company snatched away from us the life of my husband who worked so hard to do a good job,” said Keiko Shimonaka. “The people at the company did not care about a human being’s life.”

Officials at Hitachi Zosen contend Shimonaka’s suicide was not work-related, but decline to discuss specifics of the case.

In a way, suicide is considered an honorable action in Japan. It is often seen as a kind of atonement or way of taking responsibility. Scandal-tainted politicians and businessmen often make headlines by killing themselves. In May, tens of thousands of young people turned out to mourn the suicide of one of Japan’s most popular rock stars.

Japan’s overall suicide rate is high, totaling 17.2 per 100,000 people. That compares with 12 in the United States and 7.5 in England, but is well below Finland’s 27.3, according to Japan’s Health Ministry.

Suicides from overwork underline the intense commitment and devotion expected in Japan’s corporate world, where protests to superiors or simply quitting aren’t considered viable options by many workers.

Mid-career job changes are difficult in Japan and usually entail steps down, rather than opportunities for advancement. Job-hopping is still reserved for the adventurous.

The Japanese workplace is fraught with intense social pressures. Being liked by co-workers and maintaining a harmonious team usually take precedence over fair assessments of performance or ability.

This means employees tend to get the same pay and the same seniority-based promotions regardless of productivity. Those workers who can produce are leaned on much harder but don’t necessarily get monetary or status rewards.

But suicides from overwork may be having an effect on attitudes toward corporate responsibility.

Last year, Ichiro Oshima, a 24-year-old worker at a Tokyo advertising agency, became the first suicide from overwork upheld by the courts as a company liability.

Oshima averaged 30 minutes to two hours of sleep a night and didn’t get a single day off for 17 months. Still, Dentsu, his employer, argued that personal troubles were behind Oshima’s 1991 suicide.

The Tokyo High Court ruled otherwise, and ordered Dentsu to pay 89 million yen--about $654,000--to Oshima’s family.

Such cases are rare because proving overwork directly led to suicide is very difficult.

Chieko Iijima, who lost her husband to suicide from overwork, filed a lawsuit last year seeking worker compensation for his death. The 30-year-old welder hanged himself after putting in 150 hours of monthly overtime.

Whatever the outcome of her suit, she says, she will never look at work the same again.

“People start out working for their livelihood, for their families, for happiness,” she said. “Then why does it have to end up this way?”


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