The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Japan’s employees are literally working themselves to death

This is one thing Japanese employees could be doing instead of working. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Japanese might be the hardest working people in the world. Employees there sleep less and work longer hours than almost anywhere else. The culture is so rigorous that there's a word for literally working yourself to death: karoshi.

That might be good if you're an employer trying to make a deadline or cut costs. But it's bad if you're a country with a falling birthrate and a population of people who say they're too busy and exhausted to have children.

So officials are launching a new campaign to get employees out of the office. Dubbed “Premium Friday,” it will encourage companies to let workers leave early on the last Friday of the month. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also pushing a measure to cap overtime, which he says he'll enforce with random inspections. These come on the heels of major investigations into Mitsubishi and Dentsu, both accused of forcing excessive work. At Dentsu, a 24-year-old woman killed herself after putting in 100 hours of overtime.

A government spokesman told Bloomberg News that Japan needs to “end of the norm of long working hours so people can balance their lives with things like raising a child or taking care of the elderly.”

Businesses are also thinking up new ways to get people out of the office. Japan doesn't have much of a work-from-home culture right now. But one-third of large Japanese employers say that they're making remote work easier. Some, such as Yahoo Japan, are considering a four-day workweek, instituted by 2020. Others encourage employees to take a power nap at their desks or in the staff lounge (though those who dose are expected to remain upright and tidy looking). Japan Post Insurance has come up with the very clever solution of turning off the lights in its headquarters at 7:30 p.m., forcing workers to go home or else work in the dark.

Officials hope their efforts can help transform a culture where employees often feel pressured to match their peers hour for hour, and where taking vacation is seen as selfish. One worker, Eriko Sekiguchi, told the Associated Press that she spends 14 hours a day at work and gives up many of her paid holidays. She took just eight of her paid days off. But around her office, that made her seem downright indulgent. “Nobody else uses their vacation days,” Sekiguchi said. Hiroyuki Fujimura, a professor at Hosei Business School of Innovation Management, said that older workers see long hours as a good thing, the trait of a hard-working, disciplined person. But he said he thinks that that's changing. “Those in the younger generation no longer see long work hours as a good thing,” he told Bloomberg.

Hundreds of people die each year from heart attacks, strokes and other events caused by punishing work schedules. Work-related suicides rose 45 percent in the past four years among those 29 and younger. They're up 39 percent among women. In one case, a Tokyo man hanged himself after working almost 200 hours of overtime a month for seven months.