It seems these days that the world is having a serious conversation about the way we work. In China, stealth protests are arising over the so-called “996 culture,” in which workers are expected to work 9am to 9pm, six days a week – a punishing schedule that leaves little room for hobbies, or even personal well-being.
In the United States, tech culture is coming under further scrutiny as workers at game studios such as Epic Games (makers of Fortnite) and NetherRealm (the studio behind the new Mortal Kombat) have been accused of enforcing 100-hour “crunch time” workweeks, and paying testers and other workers less than a living wage.
These discussions must sound familiar to people who work in Japan. The country became famous before the bursting of its economic bubble in the 90s for the term karoshi (過労死) – literally “working to death.”
In recent years, though, the conversation seems to have shifted. People are doing less hand-wringing, and are instead discussing the nation’s “work reform” (働き改革; hataraki kaikaku), a set of policies put in place by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s government that are aimed at reducing the burden on workers. The shift can be seen in Japanese media as well: the recent drama Watashi, Teiji De Kaerimasu (私、定時で帰ります), or I Go Home When Work’s Over, starring popular actress Yoshitaka Yuriko, takes a serious look at the problems caused by overwork, and how a diverse group of employees at a digital advertising firm struggle for balance between their jobs and their lives.
It’s hard to say whether work reform will deliver on its lofty promises of changing the way Japan works. If it does, however, it will owe much to a young woman who is no longer around to receive the credit.
Takahashi Matsuri (高橋まつり) started working at Dentsu in April 2015. Nine months later, she took her own life. Her tragic fall brought forth cries for reform. But it’s also brought criticism that neither the government nor Japanese corporations are doing enough to stem the tide of abuse.
“Thanks for Everything”
In 2015, after a part-time job at Weekly Asahi, Takahashi started her first major corporate job at Dentsu Communications. Founded in 1907 as Japan Advertising (日本広告; Nippon Koukoku), Dentsu is Japan’s largest advertising agency, pulling in four times the revenue of its next nearest competitor. It was, to say, the least, a plum gig for the ambitious Takahashi.
Unfortunately, she soon discovered that Dentsu had a dark side. Within months, the 24 year old was putting in massive overtime. She chronicled her journey on her Twitter account, which her mother has kept intact.
Her first tweet was optimistic and cheery: “I love the weekends!” By October, however, things had gotten tougher on the job, and she began to tweet about how the stress was getting to her:
I’ve lost all emotion except the urge to sleep.
A breakup with her boyfriend led her to take solace in her work (“Isn’t a relative value system amazing?”). In one of her most re-tweeted missives, she penned a warning for new grads:
If there’s one thing I’d communicate to students hunting for work, it’s that work isn’t fun play or a part-time job, it’s lifelong labor, and if you’re not suited for it, there’s a chance it’ll wear you down, both mentally and physically.
The primary source of Takahashi’s stress: the long hours demanded by her job. A week before her death, she made clear the inhuman effort she was putting in, and the toll it was taking on her mental health.
After I overcome these stressful days while thinking I want to die, what will be left of me?
I start to laugh after I’ve been at work for around 20 hours in a day, and I realize I don’t know what I’m living for.
But Takahashi also made it clear she was being worn down by the constant sexist jibes she was subjected to from her boss and others. Her comments paint a picture of an environment rife with prejudice and power harassment.
He may be saying it to get laughs, but I’ve had my fill of my male boss saying crap like, “You lack femininity.” No way he’d say to a guy who was going bald, “You lack masculinity.” I’m so depressed.
Five days after that last tweet, on Christmas, Takahashi sent a message to her mother:
“Work and life are so painful. Thanks for everything.”
Her mother begged her not to take her own life. Her daughter responded with a noncommittal, “Yeah. Yeah…”
After that conversation, Takahashi committed suicide. She was 24 years old.
History Repeating Itself
Perhaps most appalling is that this wasn’t the first case of a high-profile suicide at Dentsu. In fact, it was this previous incident that first brought the problem of overwork to public attention.
In 1991, Oshima Ichiro (大嶋一郎) – 24 years of age, just like Takahashi – committed suicide. According to his family’s account, Oshima was originally told he could expect to put in between 60 and 80 hours a month of overtime. In reality, says his family, he was working so much that he would often arrive home, only to turn around two hours later and return to work. At one point, according to reports, he was putting in 147 hours of overtime in a single month – or, in other words, 76-hour workweeks.
Oshima’s family sued Dentsu, and won their case on appeal to Japan’s Supreme Court. The company paid out around US $1.6M, and was ordered to better regulate its work environment.
Unfortunately, 14 years later, it seemed little had changed.
105 Hours of Overtime in a Month
Takahashi’s death sparked an investigation by Japan’s Department of Labor into work life at Dentsu. Was the young new employee really as overworked as she claimed on Twitter?
The present-day situation, it turns out, was just as bad as Takahashi said. At Dentsu, under a labor agreement, overtime in a month is supposed to cap out at 70 hours. Hours were captured by workers in spreadsheets as a self-report and then sent to managers, who approved them. Takahashi’s reports had her putting in 69.9 hours in October, and 69.5 hours in November – numbers suspiciously just shy of the cap.
But a lawyer for Takahashi’s family said that Dentsu’s electronic gate system, which required employees to swipe their badges, told a much different story. The data showed that Takahashi’s office time in a single month added up to 130 hours of overtime – a good 60 hours beyond Dentsu’s established maximum. Further investigation revealed that Dentsu’s managers pressured employees to falsify their hours on the spreadsheets they submitted to keep the officially reported time below 70 hours.
Japan’s Labor Inspections Board later certified that Takahashi worked at least 105 hours of overtime – a number shy of the family’s claim, but still well over the limit. Takahashi’s death was officially ruled a workplace injury – suicide caused by depression, the primary cause of which was overwork.
The incident brought scorn upon the company. Dentsu was quickly labeled a “black company” (ブラック企業) – a sobriquet reserved for companies that abuse their staff. In 2016, a group of citizens, lawyers, and other professionals who dole out the “Most Evil Company of the Year” award bestowed the prize on Dentsu. Referring to another incident of employee suicide in 2013, the group said, “Numerous workers have been killed by this corporation….They’re representative of companies who continue to perpetrate human rights violations that are unacceptable to society.”
In a pattern typical of white-collar crime in Japan, the legal fallout for Dentsu was minimal. Prosecutors had originally considered charging Takahashi’s boss in her death but later concluded that, because her death was the result of company policy, there was little her boss could have done.
So that means Dentsu suffered a terrible penalty, right? Well…no. The company was fined a mere ￥500,000, or USD $5,000. As labor consultant Sakaki Yuki points out, the fine is nothing when weighed against Dentsu’s USD $1.3B in yearly profits.
The government has tried to tamper the outcry over Dentsu’s actions – and its disgracefully light punishment – by instituting a “work reform” plan, which it says will limit overtime, and provide structures for employees to report harassment. However, the plan has come under staunch criticism from critics. While the government originally sought to establish a “work to death line” of 80 hours of overtime a month, an outcry from major corporations led them to set the cap at 100 hours of overtime a month. In other words, it will still be legal for companies to demand that workers work up to 65 hours a week – a schedule that leaves little time for child-rearing or self-care. Additionally, a certain class of highly paid professionals, including financial traders and R&D workers, will now be exempt from Japan’s overtime laws, meaning it will become easier to demand overtime from them.
One of the fiercest critics of the Abe government’s reforms is Takahashi’s mother, Yukimi. Last year, on the third anniversary of her daughter’s death, she penned a heartbreaking note that encapsulated her pain, and called for further reforms:
If it hasn’t been for the long hours and harassment at Dentsu, she’d likely still be working heartily, going to the places she likes, eating delicious foods, and laughing up a storm….
The laws for work reform were passed in June, and will go into effect April of next year. I think, in terms of preventing death by overwork and suicide from overwork, this reform is a long ways off. I want a change in the law and an effort to eliminate long working hours and harassment from all companies, in all industries.
While the law may be trailing behind, it’s heartening to see people in Japan seriously discussing the issue of overwork and the best path for reform. I can only hope that China and the US tech industry follow suit.
If you are in Japan and need help, you can call the following numbers:
0570-064-556 for kokoro-no-kenkou-soudan (こころの健康相談) operated by prefectorial and city organizations.
0570-783-556 for inochi-no-denwa (いのちの電話) operated by Federation of Inochi No Denwa.
0120-061-338 for #inochi-SOS (＃いのちSOS) operated by jisatsu-taisaku-shien-sentā (自殺対策支援センター), or suicide prevention support center.
0120-0-78310 for Children’s SOS Support Desk operated by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology.
If you are in the US call 911 for emergencies and 988 for the suicide hotline.
If you want to know your country’s suicide hotline, click the link here.
【事例紹介】-1991-年-電通の過労自殺事件を紹介します。-過労死防止基本法制定を求める署名にご協力ください！Stop Karoshi blog