Big in Japan: Man works himself to death, company compensates wife

Ever hear the joke about the Japanese man who worked himself to death?

Guess what? It’s not a joke…

According to the Associated Press (AP), last week a court in Japan ordered the Toyota Motor Corporation to pay compensation to a woman who argued that her husband died from overwork.

According to woman’s lawyer, Kenichi Uchino (the departed) had been working overtime as a middle manager at a Toyota factory when he suddenly collapsed and died in February of 2002.

He was just 30 years old.

Before dying, Mr. Uchino had logged 80 hours of overtime a month for a sustained period of six months, and had logged 114 extra hours the month he died.

Sadly, Mr. Uchino is anything but an isolated case. In fact, the Japanese even have a word for punching the clock until you drop.

Working yourself to death is known in Japanese as kar?shi (??????), which directly translates to “death from overwork.”

Known in medical circles as occupational sudden death, the major medical causes of kar?shi are believed to be stress-induced heart attack and stroke.

Depressed yet? Keep reading as the story gets worse.


Sources indicate that the first recorded case of karōshi was in 1969 following the death by stroke of a 29-year-old man in the shipping department of Japan’s largest newspaper company.

However, karōshi was not officially recognized until 1987 when a large number of business executives started dropping like flies during the glory days of the famous “Bubble Economy.”

Following an intense media campaign, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor began to publish annual statistics on karōshi.

Out of morbid curiosity, would you like to hear the statistics for 2006?

Of course you do!

Last year, an estimated 355 workers fell severely ill or died from overwork. This is the highest recorded figure on record, and is sadly a 7.6 percent increase from 2005.

In 147 of these reported cases, individuals died of either strokes or heart attacks.

It gets worse.

A separate 819 workers reported suffering work-induced mental illness. In 176 of these reported cases, workers killed themselves or attempted to do so.

And now back to the original story…

Not surprisingly, karōshi lawsuits are on the rise throughout Japan, and relatives of the deceased have been increasingly awarded compensation payments.

In fact, the protocol has even been streamlined!

Before compensation can be awarded, a specially designated inspection office must acknowledge that the death was work-related. However, this can take several years, and a precedent has been set for court cases to bounce around various judicial systems.

Here is the clincher:

The Japanese Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour also reports that the leading cause of karōshi is the practice of voluntary undocumented unpaid overtime, which is known as sabisu-zangyo. Just to clarify, that means that Japanese workers are choosing to work longer hours without documenting their time or seeking compensation.

On that note, it’s nearing midnight here in Tokyo, and suddenly I feel as if I’ve worked enough for the day…

** All photos were taken by the Associated Press (AP) **