Karoshi: The Japanese Killer Work Ethic

“Hard work never killed anyone, but why take a chance?” declared the late former American president Ronald Reagan. Perhaps he never received much news from Japan.

What is karoshi?

Karoshi. Karojisatsu. These terms mean “death by overwork” and “suicide by overwork” in Japanese. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW) defines karoshi as “sudden deaths of any employee who works an average of 65 hours per week or more for more than four weeks or on average 60 hours or more per week for more than eight weeks may be karoshi.”


This is not a concept that has always existed in Japanese society. Karoshi claimed its first reported victim in 1969; a 29 year old worker in the shipping department of a newspaper company died suddenly of a stroke after working many overtime hours. It wasn’t until 1978 that the problem became prevalent enough to coin a word for “death by overwork”, and the government started recording karoshi as a cause of death in 1987.

It’s not that the Japanese necessarily have longer working hours than the rest of the world; the average number of hours worked per week falls in line with many European countries. The issue is that these statistics are misleading because they don’t track number of overtime hours worked.


Women are just as vulnerable as men are to work-related stress.

What types of work behaviour contributes to karoshi?

  • Stress over not being able to meet the goals outlined by the company
  • Decreasing the number of employees, but not decreasing the workload
  • Forced resignation of employees
  • Long work hours
  • Lack of job control
  • Job insecurity
  • Organisational problems
  • Interpersonal conflicts

History determines working culture

After Japan was left devastated in World War II, its economy quickly bounced back and rose to economic prominence during the next decades in what is referred to as the “Japanese economic post-war miracle”. This fast rise called for increased demands for productivity and skills, while also increasing Japan’s exposure to international competition. With this “miracle” came the promise of lifetime employment. Unfortunately, this rapid economic success was countered by stagnation in the 1990s, or the “Lost Decades“.

Christian Ørsted, author of Lethal Leadership also believes history contributes to why karoshi happens. For example, the Japanese history is filled with the samurai culture, and stories of kamikaze pilots. People feel like they need to live up to this history, and this paired with extreme economic fluctuations has created a working culture where it is exemplary to work 24 hours a day. There are unwritten rules which dictate it’s “ambitious” to work overtime and that a worker must be loyal to his or her company.


In fast-paced Tokyo, many view working non-stop to be ambitious.

The concept of history determining our working culture is one of the biggest issues surrounding karoshi. It’s not always necessarily the result of poor management policies – it extends far deeper into the cultural mindset. For example, Mitsubishi UFJ Trust & Banking has a program which allows employees the opportunity to leave work three hours early to be able to take care of children or elderly relatives. But how many employees took the company up on this offer? 34 out of 7,000.

What is being done to prevent karoshi?

The Japanese government is not ignoring this issue. It comes up so much in the media, for example, because it is being taken very seriously by the government, who are afraid of what could happen in the future if this pattern keeps on going. On 20 June 2014, the Japanese Parliament passed a karoshi bill calling for support centers, aid for businesses to use towards karoshi prevention programs, and funding for karoshi-related research.

Many of the large, well-respected companies are making efforts as well. Toyota has set a limit of 360 hours annual overtime for all workers and are enforcing days where everyone must leave at 5:30 p.m. Having reasonable working hours is one of the key factors Alexander Kjerulf, author of Happy Hour is 9 to 5, believes in which contribute towards happy employees and a happy working environment. This factor, along with others, contribute to Danish arbejdsglaede – a word in Danish meaning work happiness. Arbejdsglaede is more or less the opposite of karoshi.

Arbejdsglaede vs. karoshi

Kjerulf believes work happiness is attainable regardless of what you do. He attributes five main factors to Danish arbejdsglaede:

  1. Reasonable working hours
  2. Low power distance
  3. Generous unemployment
  4. Constant training
  5. A focus on happiness

It’s important to emphasise that, even though we are discussing karoshi as a Japanese social issue, stress and overwork are not solely Japanese issues. Certainly they don’t have it all figured out here in Denmark either, but the Danish word arbejdsglaede shows a different way we can approach working life – and it is something many companies in Denmark value and strive for. Perhaps if Japan keeps making progress towards preventing karoshi, they will need to find a word for “work happiness” too.

quit job quiz-01

Experiencing stress at work? Don’t fall victim to karoshi, maybe it’s time to quit your job. Take our quiz here to find out.

Images from herehere and here.

Anna Guastello
29 Jul 2014

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