Overtime culture in Japan blamed for another death

Labour officials start probe, the third reported in as many weeks

Men work around an electric utility pole along the street in Urayasu, east of Tokyo.
Men work around an electric utility pole along the street in Urayasu, east of Tokyo. PHOTO: REUTERS

Japan's labour officials, under pressure to curb excessive overtime, are investigating Kansai Electric Power after one of its managers killed himself last April.

The man, in his 40s, was a section head who reportedly worked nearly 200 hours of overtime in February and 100 hours of overtime in March, while the Osaka-based utilities company was rushing to meet deadlines. This means he was putting in 12-hour work days, seven days a week, in February.

This is the third probe reported in as many weeks, following a case of a young employee at advertising giant Dentsu who killed herself, and another of a 31-year-old man at Mitsubishi Electric who became depressed and was later sacked after allegedly being forced to do excessive overtime.

In particular, the karoshi (death by overwork) case of Dentsu employee Matsuri Takahashi, 24, whose pleas for help after clocking at least 105 hours of overtime a month went unheard, has tugged at the nation's heartstrings and galvanised a movement for change.

Dentsu president Tadashi Ishii, 65, resigned last month, and this week the firm said it will dock the pay of five board members by 20 per cent, for three months, for their failure to prevent Ms Takahashi's death. It also said it has "harshly penalised" three of her superiors, though it did not give details.

Some local governments are also taking action. On Thursday, Shiga prefecture said it will suspend Dentsu from bidding for projects in the central Japan region for three months, invoking local laws that bar businesses under probe from submitting bids. Other regions with similar guidelines might follow suit, broadcaster NHK said.

Meanwhile, a petition against overwork started last October by Mr Soichiro Nishimura of workplace consultancy Hares has gathered 40,000 signatures in one month. Among the alarming anecdotes posted on Change.org is this from a woman: "My husband is a high school teacher and only sleeps two to three hours a day due to overtime and working from home. I am worried he will die. Please help."

Mr Nishimura on Thursday said the petition has been submitted to a government panel on work-style reforms, which is expected to announce an action plan in March. Among the measures it is looking at is a strict cap on overtime hours.

  • Anonymous complaints in online petition


    "I am 27 and working in a company in Tokyo. I confess that I went through something similar to what happened in Dentsu. I suffered from depression after working 10 months in the company and I tried to disappear and commit suicide.

    "Based on my supervisor's so- called 'training policy', I was working more than 100 hours unpaid overtime a month for three months. And even if I were lucky and could leave work early, my supervisor would harass me in izakayas (pubs) and bars, at times until so late that the last train had left.

    "'If you don't listen to what I say, I will end your career,' he said. 'You are going to be a slave.'

    "It continued like a storm. But I was able to heal after eight months with the help of my family and friends. I've been there and so I cannot overlook the Dentsu case, which is unforgivable."


    "My husband does not punch timecards and unpaid overtime is 200 hours a month. I strongly feel this must change, but I also think even if there were any regulations, the actual situation will only be hidden."


    "My father continued to work long hours and now he is bedridden because he suffered a brain haemorrhage."


The panel could also address loopholes in the Labour Standards Law.

In Kansai Electric's case, experts said the firm was unlikely to have run afoul of the law as management staff are exempt from hour restrictions and do not get overtime pay.

Another flaw is the cap on work hours. Ms Yoshie Komuro of the Work-Life Balance consultancy said that while the law states employees must work no more than eight hours a day, firms have been finding ways to bend the rules.

Article 36 allows capped overtime and work on weekends under written contracts between firms and labour unions, said Ms Komuro, who sits on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Industrial Competitive Council. But firms can exercise a "special provision" clause, meant to be used sparingly, for even longer hours. At least 60 per cent of large firms have invoked this "special provision", Labour Ministry figures show.

Ms Komuro stressed that excessive overtime has destroyed the family fabric, leading to social ills such as low birth rates and an urgent gap in nursing care.

But she is hopeful the resignation of Dentsu's Mr Ishii will send a signal that top management can be held accountable. "Before this, companies did not see karoshi as something serious that had to be dealt with. But when someone at that level is forced to step down, it changes the way the problem is seen."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2017, with the headline 'Overtime culture in Japan blamed for another death'. Subscribe