Brutally long working hours are not just the preserve of Japanese office workers and laborers. Now, a Buddhist monk who works at a temple on the famed Mount Koya is suing his employers over his heavy workload, saying the early starts and late nights have made him depressed.
The 46-year-old monk has been unable to work for the past two years and is now seeking $78,000 in damages.
“The problem with working at a temple is that there’s no work-hour management and there are no records on how many hours the man actually worked,” his lawyer, Noritake Shirakura, told The Washington Post. He declined to name his client or make him available for an interview, citing his depression.
“The man is hard-working and earnest and treated all of his duties as part of his training,” Shirakura said. The line between a monk’s training and actual labor is unclear, and many temples consider all work to be part of training. “Because of that, he found himself in a very tough position and severe working environment.”
The health effects of long working hours are so well recognized in Japan that there’s even a term for “death by overwork” — karoshi.
The authorities have begun to take the phenomenon more seriously in recent years, as even young people in their 30s have had heart attacks because of the physical strain of long working hours, or have taken their own lives.
Just this week, the government recognized two more cases of karoshi. In one case, a 54-year-old producer for TV Asahi was found to have died of overwork when his heart failed in 2015. He worked as many as 130 additional hours per month — on top of his usual 40-hour workweeks — in the period immediately before his death.
And a 28-year-old IT company employee who died of a stroke last year was also deemed to have died of karoshi after the local labor standards office found he worked as many as 184 hours of overtime per month.
In the case of the monk, in 2008 he started working at a small temple at Mount Koya, a quiet World Heritage Site south of Osaka that has become a major tourist destination in recent years, thanks in no small part to the celebrations related to its 1,200th anniversary in 2015.
That year, the monk says he was forced to work 64 consecutive days between March and May, and then 32 straight days in September and October.
A local labor standards supervision office has already recognized his overwork, confirming he once worked for at least a month without a day off, the Kyodo News agency reported.
The monk’s duties started at about 5 a.m., when he began preparing for a daily morning prayer ceremony, a drawing card for tourists. Then he would attend to guests’ needs and manage the checking in and out process, a task that generally lasted until about 5 p.m. but could continue until 11 p.m.
Mount Koya has 117 temples, almost half of which have shukubo, or lodging places for monks and guests. Guests typically eat a vegetarian dinner and breakfast in private dining rooms at the shukubo, and sleep on futons on a tatami mat floor.
Since it was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2004, the number of tourists staying overnight in the temples more than doubled to 440,000 in 2015. The number of foreign guests nearly tripled in the three years from 2013, Kyodo reported.
The monk also took care of the duties that only monks could do, such as helping prepare Buddhist services and writing Buddhist scripts on cards and scrolls, a task that could take hours, his lawyer said.
By the end of 2015, he began to develop depression and then went on sick leave in March 2016 on his doctor’s advice, according to the complaint, filed in the Wakayama District Court.
Shirakura, the monk’s lawyer, is now asking the court to rule that the temple violated its “obligation of security” — the idea that an employer is obligated to be considerate of employees' physical and other security, including mental health, while working.
This is not the first time Buddhist temples have found themselves in legal trouble over work practices.
Last year, a court in Kyoto ordered a temple to pay two monks a combined $60,000 for years of unpaid overtime, which sometimes hit 130 hours a month. The temple admitted it had not been keeping track of working hours.
Fifield reported from Seoul and Oda from Tokyo.