Japanese Woman’s “Death by Housework” Goes Unacknowledged

Japanese Woman’s “Death by Housework” Goes Unacknowledged

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Woman tired from housework
Picture: プラナ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
A woman was worked to death - but since it was "just housework", Japan's government won't acknowledge it. How her family is fighting back.

Karōshi (過労死) is a Japanese term that has entered the English lexicon, meaning death from overwork. It conjures images of the archetypal salaryman, working long hours at his white-collar desk job.

This white-collar, male image is of course not the entirety of karōshi. It ought to be questioned, both for us as individuals as well as for the government agencies who work to redress death by overwork as well as set the constraints that aim to prevent it in the first place.

The definition of “karōshi” excludes “housework”

In 2015, a cleaning and health care company forced a 68-year-old woman in Tokyo Metropolis to houseclean for an elderly patient for a week without rest. She died shortly thereafter.

The Japanese government will not declare it karōshi, because it does not define housework of this sort as a qualifying occupation. A new petition seeks to overturn this, and to pursue some measure of redress.

POSSE, a nonprofit organization, started the Change.org petition on behalf of the woman’s surviving family. This nonprofit organization explains its mission as “advice toward consultation, and along with supporting the exercise of rights, exercising an influence on society from the ground level of labor and poverty issues through statements to the media.”

POSSE especially focuses on working with immigrants and the young. Together with Rousai Union, a labor union specializing in work-related injuries, NPO POSSE is supporting the lawsuit lodged by the woman’s family against the government. Change.org will deliver the petition to both the Tokyo District Court as well as the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.


The petition sums up the initial incident:

On the night of 27 May 2015, Ms. A. (then 68 years old), employed as a housekeeper and home care nursing helper, collapsed when visiting a private bathing facility, and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. She died the following day of acute myocardial infarction. Through Y company, she had been a live-in caregiver for a bedridden elderly patient (nursing care level 5) at this patient’s home. From the 20th to the 26th of May, nearly without pause, she performed many specialized tasks of cleaning, housekeeping, and nursing, entirely on her own.

The woman had been working for Y company for just under two years at the time of her death. To underline just how grueling this schedule was, the testimony of one of Ms. A’s colleagues, quoted in the petition, also bears noting here.

This colleague testified that the company didn’t allow its workers to take even a moment’s rest. The company ordered them to change the patient’s adult diapers every two hours and to deal immediately with incontinence.

In other words, this was a 24 hour job with no relief whatsoever.

One group fights back

Takahashi Matsuri - Dentsu - death by overwork (karoshi)
Takahashi Matsuri remains one of Japan’s most infamous cases of “death by overwork”.

The woman’s family petitioned the Shibuya Labor Standards Supervision Office for a ruling of work-related injury in May 2017. This office has jurisdiction over Shibuya and Setagaya City in Tokyo Metropolis. In January 2018, the office ruled that labor laws did not cover the circumstances of Ms. A’s death.

The government argued that under the present state of both the Labor Standards Act and Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance Act, housekeepers are exempt from coverage. Indeed, per the translation on the Ministry of Justice’s Japanese Law Translation portal, the Labor Standards Act, Chapter XII, Article 116, Paragraph 2, states “This Act does not apply to a business that employs only cohabiting relatives, nor to domestic workers.”

However, POSSE points out that per the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare’s foundational Number 150 notification, “Those contracted by a person to do housework under their orders as business in private homes do not meet the definition of a domestic worker.” In other words, not everyone who does housework fall under this definition. Thus, someone like Ms. A, who worked through a company, is thus entitled to protection under the Labor Standards Act and workers’ accident insurance.

POSSE’s petition rightly notes “Amidst the growth of housekeeping services in society, there are many housekeepers who cannot exercise basic workers’ rights and are treated like slaves.” This is a situation that will only take more lives if there is not some manner of government intervention to set precedents and new standards.

A ruling is imminent

Following the denial of their petition, the family appealed this decision to no avail. The government denied both the family’s formal objection and appeal for the re-examination of the case. As a result, in March 2020, the woman’s husband and surviving family lodged a lawsuit against the government, aiming to overturn this ruling. On the 29th of September– 20 days hence, as of the writing of this article– the Tokyo District Court is slated to hand down the ruling on this new case.

Japan’s population is rapidly aging. Housekeeping and home care nursing are thus rapidly growing job sectors. So this lawsuit is a courageous step in trying to improve conditions for everyone employed in that field – both current and future.

This issue also brings attention to the way that Japanese society still devalues “women’s work”. In heterosexual relationships in Japan, women take on most of the burden of house cleaning. According to global statistics, women in Japan do over five times the amount of housework their husbands do. So this case has implications for housework is regarded, not just as a job, but in the home as well.

It remains to be seen how the Tokyo District Court will rule, and whether it will grant Ms. A’s family redress. We hope they will listen to the (as of this writing) over six thousand signatories on POSSE’s petition who are likewise pleading for justice to prevail.

Karoshi of Love: Job Satisfaction Exploitation and “Women’s Work” in Japan


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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020). She hosts Friday Night History on anchor.fm/fridaynighthistory and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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