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Japan's Killer Work Ethic

By Blaine Harden, Washington Post Foreign Service - Sun, July 13, 2008

TOKYO -- Death from too much work is so commonplace in Japan that there is a word for it -- karoshi.

There is a national karoshi hotline, a karoshi self-help book and a law that funnels money to the widow and children of a salaryman (it's almost always a man) who works himself into an early karoshi for the good of his company.

A local Japanese government agency ruled June 30 for the widow and children of a 45-year-old Toyota chief engineer who died in 2006.

While organizing the worldwide manufacture of a hybrid version of the Camry sedan, the man had worked nights and weekends and often traveled abroad -- putting in up to 114 hours of overtime a month -- in the six months before he died in his bed of heart failure.

The cause of death was too much work, according to a ruling by the Labor Bureau of Aichi prefecture, where Toyota has its headquarters.

The engineer's daughter found his body on Jan. 2, 2006, the day before he was supposed to fly yet again to the United States for more work on the Camry launch, said Mikio Mizuno, an attorney for his wife.

An exhausted salaryman rides a commuter train in Tokyo. Death from too much work has been a problem for decades, and the Japanese government has been largely unsuccessful in its efforts to set limits on work hours. (By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)

The ruling by the labor bureau will allow the engineer's family to receive work insurance benefits, Mizuno said. The family has requested that the man's name not be released.

For decades, the Japanese government has been trying, and largely failing, to set limits on work and on overtime. The problem of karoshi became prevalent enough to warrant its own word in the boom years of the late 1970s, as the number of Japanese men working more than 60 hours a week soared.

Thirty years later, overtime rules remain so nebulous and so weakly enforced that the United Nations' International Labor Organization has described Japan as a country with no legal limits on the practice.

The consequences show up not only in claims for death and disability from overwork but in suicides attributed to "fatigue from work." Among 2,207 work-related suicides in 2007, the most common reason (672 suicides) was overwork, according to government figures released in June

Twice in the past year, Toyota -- the world's largest carmaker and a much-admired company in Japan -- has been publicly embarrassed by the deaths of employees who worked what Japanese authorities have judged to be killingly long hours.

Kenichi Uchino, 30, a quality-control manager at Toyota, collapsed at work and died in 2002, after having worked more than 80 hours of overtime every month for the previous six months. A court ruled late last year that overwork, much of it for no pay, had caused his death and that his widow was entitled to compensation.

Unpaid overtime is routine in factories and offices across Japan.

At Toyota, it had been built into factory life -- in the form of long, after-hours quality-control sessions that were supposedly voluntary -- and was considered a key to the company's success. Participation in the sessions, though, often figured in a worker's prospects for promotion and higher pay.

Toyota announced in May that it would begin paying overtime to workers who take part in the quality-control sessions.

McDonald's Japan, having lost a lawsuit to a restaurant manager who claimed his health failed because of long hours, announced in May that it, too, would pay more overtime.

In the wake of the case of the engineer who died after working night and day on the hybrid Camry project, Toyota said last week that it would try to improve its monitoring of workers' health.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

Read this article on the Washington Post website.