The Japanese aren’t Having Sex and are Literally Working Themselves to death
The year is 2008. Mina Mori, a 26-year-old woman from Japan, sits at a bus stop in the early hours of the morning. She’s awaiting the first mode of transport to her home after another long shift of working over-time. Though Mina has only been the manager at Watami—a popular pub chain—for two months, the overwhelming workload is taking its toll on her physical and mental wellbeing.
Since she started at Watami, Mina has worked more than 160 hours of overtime each month. The pressure for her to work longer than she is rostered leaves her no free time – no time for friends, no time for family, nor for sex, shopping, music or anything else that makes her happy.
Japan’s lack of legislation on work stress at the time leaves the young woman with no choice. Mina steps onto the bus that will take her home for the last time, and takes her life later that day.
This is a normal phenomenon in Japan, and it even has a name – karōshi – which translates as “overwork death”. Karōshi was first widely recognised in the 1980s, and today, stroke, heart attacks and suicide alike all still occur in horrifying numbers. Over 4.7 million Japanese people work more than 60 hours per week, and though karōshi legislation was introduced in 2014, there are still no legal limits on working hours – the government just has to take steps to eliminate deaths or suicides induced by overwork. As a result, cases of karōshi continue to soar. In April this year, legal claims relating to karōshi hit a record high, rising to 1,456 for the last financial year. Around 400 deaths are reported annually, though it has been speculated this number could actually be as high as 20,000.
The evidence is even visible on the streets. Peak hour is 11pm rather than the usual 5pm around the rest of the world, and the focus on work has resulted in a significantly ageing population. Even thinking about sex is at the bottom of the agenda for a lot of Japanese people, who are forced to spend nearly their entire lives at their desk.
It is completely normal to watch a Japanese businessman pass out at the train station before he steps onto the carriage to make it home, and it’s not unusual to walk around a sleeping Japanese man on the curb as you turn a corner in the busy street. Even sleeping on the job has become the norm, as workers believe that if they are exhausted, they will spend more time double-checking their work to avoid making any mistakes. So if a lack of sleep due to working over-time is causing a decrease in performance, why are so many Japanese people leaving the office after 11pm, skipping dinner with their families and missing crucial hours of sleep each night?
According to Takuya Kobayashi, a resident of Tokyo, employees are staying late to avoid looking disloyal to the company. Managers are staying at the office for many hours out of the regular structure of 9 – 5 and for employees; leaving at 5pm is “not even an option”. One of Takuya’s friends who works for an advertising company completes her work by 5pm, but since her boss has never finished by then, she watches YouTube videos until he has. Another of Takuya’s friends works at an IT company and finds himself typing in random numbers on his keypad until his manager decides to leave.
But not all Japanese workers are just killing time until their bosses are ready to leave. Takuya mentions that some Japanese workers are “perfectionists” and will spend their extra hours reviewing their work over and over again until it is faultless. Regardless of whether they are perfectionists or not, they’re not leaving until their boss does first.
Since Japanese people are working so many hours, this doesn’t leave a lot of opportunity in the day for family time, let alone dating and doing the dirty. A recent article by The Japan Times reported that nearly half of Japanese people have not had sex in the last month, and The Guardian reported that nearly 50% of women aged 16 – 24 are “not interested in or despise sexual contact”. It’s no wonder the country’s birth rate is declining. Add the issue of increasing rates of suicide, and you have a serious problem regarding the impact on the future of the economy.
At Watami, Mina Mori worked 60 hours over the average threshold at which the labour ministry deems Karōshi most likely to occur. While the government claims to have procedures in place for monitoring working overtime, in Mina’s case, all this entailed was a labour union representative or a branch manager signing a form to agree on a stipulated maximum overtime. However, this representative didn’t seem to exist, and if Mina’s employer said she needed to stay late, due to a power gap between employers and employees and Japan’s culture of being loyal, Mina wouldn’t have had a say and would have taken what she believed to be the only option.
Hiroshi Kawahito, the Secretary General of the National Defence Counsel for Victims of Karoshi, claims the government is failing to recognise the problem. How many more deaths does there need to be before Japan correctly implements labour supervision? Not only do the long working hours of corporate employees need to be curbed, but the culture of working overtime needs to be eliminated. If serious action isn’t taken soon, one can only hope the government is haunted by the ghosts of those who have taken their own lives.