“We are dropouts. This is what happens when you fall through the mainstream salaryman culture,” Takeshi, 58, who makes a living by salvaging garbage in Kamagasaki, told me. His words stuck in my head and I wanted to see how the elite of society work.
Once considered to be the birthright for many Japanese, stable, full-time positions as “salarymen” are becoming scarce. With the recession of the 1990s, many Japanese companies departed from the tradition of lifetime employment and went through massive layoffs, replacing costly full-time workers with low-paid temporary workers who have no benefits or job security. As a result, salarymen increasingly work longer hours because of a shortage of manpower and the fear of losing jobs.
"Why do Japanese people work so much? The cause of my depression is definitely overwork," Naoya Nishigaki, 27, a systems engineer, wrote on his blog. "I can’t do anything. I don’t feel like doing anything. I just feel irritated, exhausted, and disgusted. I try to suppress these feelings with medication, but I feel like my medication has become less and less effective lately. I’m so worried. What should I do?" Naoya overdosed on his medication in 2006. He is one of the new faces of karoshi—suicide.
His mother Michiyo Nishigaki, 67, found out later that 13 out of 74 of his coworkers either have taken extended leaves of absence or resigned. She was surprised when her son's boss told her, “Everybody suffers from depression here. You have to work through it with medication. Learning to work with depression is true sign of professionalism.”
The word karoshi came into common use around 1990, when Japanese workers died from heart attacks or strokes due to long work hours. Today, workers are committing suicide, and that is a major change, writes lawyer Hiroshi Kawahito, who represents families and relatives of karoshi victims. In 2010, 1,181 cases were filed with the Labor Department for compensation for work-related mental illness, among which 171 were suicides. But the actual number of suicides is estimated to be much higher, because only a fraction of families would file a case due to the prejudice and discrimination associated with suicide. Of more than 30,000 suicides recorded last year, 10,000 were believed to be related to overwork, according to data from the national police agency. Excessive overwork is particularly prevalent among younger people who struggle to hold on to scarce full-time positions and fear they will end up as temp workers. More than half of all the compensation cases for work-related mental illness are filed by the 20-39 age group. The number one cause of death in 2010 for the 20-29 age group and the 30-39 age group was suicide.
Shota Nakahara, 32, a former systems engineer, has been suffering from depression caused by overwork, sleep deprivation and stress for eight years. He described his working conditions as the “death march”— excessive overwork in order to achieve unrealistic goals. He sued his company for unpaid overtime and won a lawsuit in 2006, but is still unable to return to work. “I used to work from 8:40 a.m. to 3 a.m. for nearly two years. I was psychologically on the edge. I could not register scenery around me. I couldn’t tell what day it was or which season. The only thing I could see was the entrance to the company and the computer on my desk. I could not hear any sounds around me and my vision was really narrow and blurred. I could not even hear my boss’s voice,” he said.
Even under the harsh working conditions, he hesitated to resign. “I was afraid that once I lost my full-time job, my life would be destroyed. It is really hard to get full-time positions. With low-paid temp work, I thought I would plunge into poverty and hit the bottom of the society. That’s the end of my life." Nonetheless, he finally quit. “I came to the point where I had to choose between life or work.”