Japan is notorious for its work culture of long hours, presenteeism and employees not taking advantage of their holiday entitlements. Workers frequently report stress-induced illnesses and many even die through overwork, which even has its own term, karoshi.
These tragic cases tend to make global news and the most recent one is no exception, largely due to the age of the victim. Miwa Sado, a media worker at Japan's public broadcaster, NHK, had logged 159 hours of overtime and took just two days off in the month before she died from heart failure aged just 31, the Guardian reported.
Sado's employer has waited four years to make public her death, which a labour standards office in Tokyo ruled was caused by overwork, on account of her family's wishes. Sado, who was a political reporter, died in July 2013 three days after the country's upper house elections. She had been covering the Tokyo metropolitan assembly elections and the national upper house elections in June and July, reported the Guardian.
In a statement released through the organisation, Sado's family said they wanted to ensure her death wouldn't be in vain. "Even today, four years on, we cannot accept our daughter’s death as a reality. We hope that the sorrow of a bereaved family will not be wasted."
Masahiko Yamauchi, a senior official in NHK’s news department, admitted the young woman's death highlighted a “problem for our organisation as a whole, including the labour system and how elections are covered”.
Indeed, Sado's death reflects a national crisis of overwork – the Japanese government published its first white paper on karoshi last year and found that a fifth of all employees were at risk of dying from strokes, heart attacks and suicide resulting from overwork. Suicide is the most common cause, with the government saying that more than 2,000 people took their own lives in the year to March 2016, reported the Guardian.
Comparing Japanese employees' working hours with those in other developed countries highlights the seriousness of the country's problem even further. Employees took an average of just 8.8 days of their annual leave in 2015 – less than half of what they were entitled to. By contrast, their counterparts in Hong Kong and Singapore took 100% and 78% respectively.
Thankfully, the Japanese government knows it has a problem and has proposed a monthly overtime cap of 100 hours, although this wasn't entirely well received. It also plans to penalise employers that allow their workers to exceed the cap. Let's hope the government enforces its own target.