Japan's Disposable Workers

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Overworked To Suicide

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Death March

“Why do Japanese people work so much? The cause of my depression is definitely overwork,” Naoya Nishigaki, 27, a systems engineer, wrote on his blog. “I can’t do anything. I don’t feel like doing anything. I just feel irritated, exhausted, and disgusted. I try to suppress these feelings with medication, but I feel like my medication has become less and less effective lately. I’m so worried. What should I do?” Naoya overdosed on his medication in 2006.

His mother Michiyo Nishigaki, 67, found out later that 13 out of 74 of his coworkers either have taken extended leaves of absence or resigned. She was surprised when her son’s boss told her, “Everybody suffers from depression here. You have to work through it with medication. Learning to work with depression is true sign of professionalism.”

“Karoshi”: Death by brain and heart ailment, due to overwork.

“Karojishi”: Suicide by depression and other mental illness, due to overwork.

The word “karoshi” came into common use around 1990, when Japanese workers died from heart attacks or strokes due to long work hours. Over the past several years, the number of suicides brought on by excessive overwork have increased rapidly and is called “karojishi.”

Once considered to be the birthright for many Japanese, stable full-time positions such as “salaryman” are becoming scarce. With the recession of the 1990s, many Japanese companies departed from tradition of lifetime employment and went through massive layoffs, replacing costly full-time workers with low-paid temporary workers who have no benefits or job security. As a result, salarymen increasingly work longer hours because of a shortage of manpower and the fear of losing jobs.

Syota Nakahara, 32, a former systems engineer, has been suffering from depression caused by overwork, sleep deprivation and stress for eight years. He described his working conditions as the “death march”— excessive overwork in order to achieve unrealistic goals. He sued his company for unpaid overtime and won a lawsuit in 2006, but is still unable to return to work. “I used to work from 8:40 a.m. to 3 a.m. for nearly two years. I was psychologically on the edge. I could not register scenery around me. I couldn’t tell what day it was or which season. The only thing I could see was the entrance to the company and the computer on my desk. I could not hear any sounds around me and my vision was really narrow and blurred. I could not even hear my boss’s voice,” he said.

Even under the harsh working conditions, he hesitated to resign. “I was afraid that once I lost my full-time job, my life would be destroyed. It is really hard to get full-time positions. With low-paid temp work, I thought I would plunge into poverty and hit the bottom of the society. That’s the end of my life.” Nonetheless, he finally quit. “I came to the point where I had to choose between life or work.”



Family’s Hardship After His Death

Koichi Nanbu, 58, disappeared from his family and colleagues for a week and traveled nearly 300 miles west from his home to Nara city where he used to live with his wife more than 20 years ago. He chose that city as the place to end his life. It was the morning of February 11, 2004. He left his travel bag in a coin locker, put on a matching watch he and his wife wore on special occasions, and folded a little note in his shirt pocket. At 9:34 a.m., he jumped onto the train tracks. From there he could see the apartment where he and his wife had lived as newlyweds.The note in his shirt pocket was filled with scribbles of apologies.”I can’t work anymore. I don’t know why. I’m really sorry to cause so much trouble for the company.” Mr. Nanbu was a plant engineer for a small company where his long work hours kept him away from his family. Many people apologize in their suicide notes, says his wife, Setsuko Nanbu, 67. “I think he knew it was wrong, but he was in so much pain that he felt like death was the only way to escape and be relieved from it.“

Ms. Nanbu says she initially could not talk about her husband’s suicide and told neighbors that he died of a heart attack. She thought telling people about his suicide would dishonor him. But as she researched more about suicide, she changed her mind. “I realized lying about how he died was the same as denying how he lived.” Today, she works for a non-profit organization for suicide prevention and speaks about her husband’s suicide at various conferences and events.

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. More than 30,000 people per year have committed suicide since 1997. Still, the stigma associated with suicide is very strong in Japan and many family members cannot talk about their loved one’s suicide because they are often left ostracized from their communities.



Hiroko Ishikura, 68, could not talk about her husband’s suicide for nearly 18 years. The secrecy exacerbated the loneliness, making her more and more isolated from her community. In despair and hopelessness, she herself attempted suicide three times. “I felt like I was not qualified to live. I could not find meaning, value, or purpose in my life. I thought death was the only option,” she says. When she regained consciousness after her third attempt, her family was at her hospital bed arranging her funeral. It was the sight of her mother sobbing quietly by her that made her stop further attempts. “It’s not because I wanted to live. I just didn’t want her to go through the same pain that I had.”

Isolation, survivor’s guilt and regret are just the tip of the iceberg of many complex problems that bereaved family members face. After a husband’s suicide, for example, a wife may be left with small children or huge debt. If he jumped onto a train track, a train company may demand a lot of money from his family. If he jumped from a building, the building management charges a “cleaning fee.” Those who file workers’ compensation cases are a small percentage. The majority of widows are overwhelmed by the financial difficulty of losing their sole bread winner. They can barely make daily expenses, let alone come up with legal fees.

In an attempt to hide their violation of labor laws on working hours or harassment, some companies accuse the deceased of causing financial damage to their company. Masayoshi Shimamura, worked for an automobile company as a salesman for 26 years. He fought through depression for six years. When his wife Hideko Shimamura, 50, called his company about his suicide, two of his bosses visited her immediately. The first thing they asked, Ms. Shimamura recalls, is if her husband said anything about the company or if he left any note or journal. The reason they asked, she suspects, was because one of his bosses had been harassing him. Then they refused to pay his retirement benefits because they claimed her husband caused some damage to the company. They threatened Ms. Shimamura with a lawsuit. “It was really cruel for them to threaten us with a penalty. We’ve just lost a loved one and we had no clue how to survive from one day to the next,” she says. Kinmi Ohashi, 62, who lost her husband of 33 years, sued the logistics company where her husband worked for 37 years. She claimed that his suicide was caused by power harassment over years. She won the suit. The first thing the company did, she says, was to ask her to sign a resignation letter. “One worker does not mean anything to a big company. He is just disposable.“

The Last Conversation

Watch the widows recall their last conversation with their husbands.