Japan’s toxic culture of working long hours

-- Jul 29
A television commercial for an energy drink in 1990s Japan told viewers they could work 24 hours straight without feeling tired after consuming it. The claim, if made today, would be seen as an invitation to karoshi or death caused by overwork.

The most attractive startups today are those that offer the possibility of arriving late at work and working from home at least one day a week.

Yet in 2019, there were 29,169 suicides out of which 1,949 or 9.7 percent were cases of karoshi. The precise causes are to be found in the inability to give up a commitment even if all psycho-physiological sensors tell the body it cannot take this anymore.

This is what happened to Yui (not her real name), a 23-year-old who recently graduated from university. She found a job in Japan’s notorious broadcasting network, NHK. Her aspiration was to make documentaries on social issues.

“It was last year, April 2021. I just graduated from University and was super excited to go work for them. But it was unusual from the beginning,” she recalled.

Yui's first assignment was to cover the pregnancies of Brazilian women in Hamamatsu in the Shizuoka Prefecture, which was a couple of hours by train from Tokyo. It was a very intense job that required weeks of preparation.

“After days of hard work, I suddenly realized my body was feeling strange. I felt incredibly tired. And the tiredness wouldn’t go away. That’s when I realized I had been working for 22 days straight. I mean, not a single day off. Twelve hours a day, for 22 days, just work,” Yui said.

In 2019, a new labor law was passed in Japan setting a maximum limit on overtime work.

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