The office route to an early grave

(REUTERS) - ''Don't the salaried workers of 'prosperous Japan' today actually live more miserably than the slaves of old?" The line comes from a poem by Mr Toshitsugu Yagi, who died in 1987 at the age of 43 after several years of an infernal work schedule that often kept him from home until 11pm or midnight.

He had constantly complained of stress and tiredness. One night he came home and died of a heart attack.

The Labour Standards Office turned down his wife's appeal for compensation. The Labour Ministry stipulates that someone must have worked continuously for 24 hours preceding death, or at least 16 hours daily for seven consecutive days beforehand, to be deemed a victim of karoshi (death through overwork).

"The Labour Ministry and company doctors don't want to recognise karoshi, as their responsibility would then be brought into question," says Mr Hiroshi Kawahito, secretary-general of the National Defence Council for Karoshi Victims.

"Even though it is supposed to keep a watch on labour conditions, the ministry stands up for industry's interests," he says.

Mr Yagi's death and others like it are described in a book, published by the council, called Karoshi - When The 'Corporate Warrior' Dies. Mr Kawahito says as many as 10,000 Japanese work themselves to death every year.

Callers jammed the lines when the council set up its Karoshi Hotline in June 1988 and it had to create more branches. It has now taken about 2,000 distress calls.

Official statistics show that Japanese work longer than people in any other advanced country. Industrious Germans and Americans work only 1,642 and 1,949 hours a year respectively, but the Japanese put in an average of 2,168 hours.

"The statistics are a lie," Mr Kawahito says. "It's illegal in Japan not to pay workers for overtime, and since most Japanese companies are breaking this law they have to lie about their workers' hours. It also helps pacify foreigners who complain about Japanese overwork and trade imbalances."

The council estimates the average Japanese puts in around 2,600 hours a year, with real corporate warriors nearer 3,000.

Companies provide their own figures about employees' working hours and do not record the long hours that workers put in unpaid.

Not doing this "service overtime" and then not going on obligatory drinking sessions with the boss can damage promotion prospects and even lead to sacking.

Asked about their annual holidays, office workers reply they have 10 days' vacation a year, "but we're not allowed to take it."

In addition to this, Japanese have longer commuting times than any other nation. Forty-seven per cent of Tokyo residents spend two hours or more commuting each day, sometimes crammed into trains with more than seven people per square metre. Only six per cent of Americans have such long journeys.

A tense office atmosphere with the boss keeping a watchful eye out for slackers helps keep on the pressure.

Japan's company unions have been apathetic about karoshi, says Mr Kawahito.

"Japanese unions are not real labour unions, but are more like a section of the company itself," he says.

"Companies spend a great deal of energy on emasculating potentially damaging labour groupings."

The personal drive of the Japanese is compounded by corporate propaganda telling employees they have to work to excess, says Mr Kawahito.

"You don't have to hit people to force them to overwork," says Mr Kawahito. "Staff training is designed to get them to work as if they were in the army."

He adds: "Companies use propaganda to generate a sense of urgency.

"They persuade workers the company is in danger of collapse and they might lose their jobs. In fact, it's the workers who collapse."