The concept of karoshi, a Japanese word that translates to “death from overwork” has gained notoriety throughout both hemispheres during the economic powerhouse decades of the eighties in Japan and the nineties in America. The first case reported came in 1969 from the shipping department of Japan’s largest national newspaper, where a 29 year old worker died suddenly of stroke during an extended shift. Three physicians finally labeled the phenomenon “karoshi” in 1982 and attributed the increasing deaths to “long working hours, shift work, and irregular work schedules” (Nishiyama and Johnson). In their 1997 study, Nishiyama and Johnson emphasized that the causes of karoshi were ominously complex, ranging from lack of free time for doctor’s visits to increased escapism through alcohol and, of course, stress.

The stereotype (if an abstract concept can be stereotyped) is of a wealthy executive dying suddenly in his luxury high-rise office after working fourteen-hour days for weeks straight. This arose because the deaths of several high-ranking, otherwise healthy executives in the late eighties in Japan drew attention from all corners of the business world (de Mente). The reality however, is that workers at all levels in Japanese society have fallen victim to karoshi. The 1982 study found that all types of workers were dying, including “shift workers, drivers, newspaper and television workers, construction workers, and salesmen.” In almost all cases karoshi victims were working 3,000 hours per year, or about 60 hours per week, much of it unpaid overtime (Nishiyama and Johnson). Official tallies quoted by The Economist show that the Japanese work slightly fewer hours per year than Americans (1780 hours vs. 1800 hours) but significantly more than Germans (1440 hours). However, this obviously circumvents “voluntary” overtime, which is not paid and is estimated to increase total hours worked in Japan from 2,189 to 3,120 per year (Nishiyama and Johnson).

The authors of the 1997 study emphasized karoshi’s link to Japanese Production Management, or JPM. They argue that “the main reason for over-work is rooted in the very nature of the Japanese Production Management system itself.” JPM is an intricate and highly ideological business model that emphasizes the Japanese ideal of “kaizen,” or “continuous improvement.” It was adopted in the West during the nineties under the guise of “lean production”, and can partially explain the mass layoffs and outsourcing of American jobs during that decade despite an evident economic boom.

In order to maximize profit, JPM obsessively strives to eliminate waste. One example is Wal-Mart’s concept of “time theft,” as described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Employees of a Minneapolis Wal-Mart where Ehrenreich worked were required to clock out for all breaks, even if to merely use the restroom and all associates were forbidden to converse with each other on company time.

Wal-Mart also exemplifies the ideological aspect of JPM through their company cheer. Japanese firms use similar chants and songs to instill a nationalistic pride in the company, even making workers vow to put the company’s interests before their own. Socially, JPM tricks workers into feeling as though they share “the same goals as management rather than having their own distinct interests as members of a different, working class.” Activities emphasize the small group or team method of productivity, resulting in artificial solidarity within the arbitrarily assigned groups, peer to peer competition, and even isolation as individuals strive to set themselves apart in the eyes of their superiors. Far from being a fulfilling workplace, companies that employ JPM, or lean production, have been described as “authoritarian,” destroying labor unions and building a self-perpetuating system of “corporate fascism” (Nishiyama and Johnson).

While this ubiquitous system of management has been widely shown to increase stress, anxiety, depression, and to negatively impact health in the long-term, it has been extremely difficult to link it to the sudden demise of karoshi victims. It wasn’t until the definition of karoshi was expanded to include suicides and other tertiary causes of death like drug abuse and preventable accidents that a more substantial link could be forged.

Over the last decade there has been an increase of karoshi suicides in France and other parts of Europe. Since France’s largest telecommunications company, France Telecom, was privatized in 1998, a waste-conscious form of corporate management, strikingly similar to JPM has been entrenched. A report in IPS News found that there had been twenty-four suicides at France Telecom in the last year and a half alone. In addition, colleagues recounted that each of the victims had spoken of their intentions at some point and blamed their jobs for their misery (Godoy). Suicide notes from dead workers at French carmakers Renault and Peugeot have consistently named poor working conditions as the source of their hopelessness. The General Confederation of Workers, France’s largest labor union estimates that 400 French people kill themselves each year because of difficulty at work. Godoy also describes the trend throughout the EU as a whole, quoting a representative of the European Trade Union Institute, which found that 27% of all European workers are concerned that their jobs negatively affect their health.

In general however, especially in the U.S., it is considered taboo to speak of the connection between how we spend a third of our lives and what may induce our early deaths. Both the 1997 karoshi study and the IPS News piece point to the unquestioned ideology of efficiency and production as the impediment to discussion around this issue. But what about now that the worst economic recession since the 1930’s has allowed all of us to question the dogma of efficiency and productivity? Aren’t we finally ready to step back and point to the destruction of individuals as a symptom of this ideology, now that entire nations have seen the verge of ruin?

Unfortunately we are not quite ready, because as corporations struggle for their own survival, they are creating mass unemployment, which is proving to be far more dangerous to workers. Technically speaking, karoshi only applies when a victim succumbs to stress in the workplace, but financial ruin undoubtedly mimics the stress responses of overworked people.

The current recession is not without its ‘stereotypical’ karoshi victims. The most notorious case is of David Kellerman, who was thrown into the top position of the Freddie Mac mortgage giant in the wake of the subprime collapse. Family and colleagues reported that Kellerman was working non-stop, sometimes only going home long enough to change his clothes. He reportedly complained about the stress he was feeling, claiming that he couldn’t keep up with the competing demands of regulators, investors, and other executives. Finally, on Wednesday April 22nd, 2009, he hung himself in his basement, just as a media-fueled controversy was about to erupt regarding Freddie Mac’s executive bonus pay, which was predicted to total $210 million (Duhigg and Healy).

However, despite the New York Times’ assertion that Kellerman’s death is a pertinent reminder that “those suffering in this crisis reside in every neighborhood, from the squalid to the opulent” (Duhigg and Healy), virtually no one has explored the suffering of the “squalid.” Barbara Ehrenreich may have been the first to do so in The Nation in July of 2008 with her article “The Suicide Solution.” She not only explores the current rash of economically induced suicides, she also presents a brief history of people choosing to die when faced with economic instability. In India, for instance, 150,000 farmers drowning in debt have killed themselves since 1997. In some cases drinking the pesticides meant for their crops was the only suicide option available to them.

This is in contrast to much of the history of organized labor, Ehrenreich points out. In the 1930’s, it was common for neighbors to defend each other from foreclosure, sometimes refurnishing the house by force. She cites Francis Fox Piven, an expert on working class political and social movements, who described one eviction in Detroit that required 100 police officers to overcome the mob and remove the family from their foreclosed house. In many cases the courts even sided with the evicted, allowing them to stay in their homes despite their financial woes. Now it’s just as common to find a foreclosed house full of murder-suicide victims.

Nick Turse of Tomdispatch.com has been cataloguing the increase of violent crime in local news stories since 2008 and drawing deep connections between the growing desperation in America to its recent economic woes. Not only has crime anecdotally risen, but the gruesome nature of many of the stories seems unprecedented. Every state is reporting some kind of act of violent desperation, most recently an office shooting in Orlando, Florida, where Jason Rodriguez, 40, shot six former co-workers, killing one. He had been laid off in 2007 and was working at Subway, unable to make ends meet. An Orlando lawyer who had represented Rodriguez in a past bankruptcy described him as “typical” in this economic turmoil (Turse 11.20.09).

Perhaps Rodriguez is typical because the desperation he felt is a symptom of something larger than his tragic life. The common lesson of karoshi and of the recent increase in violent death is that the system that introduced immense efficiency and wealth to the world actually comes at a steep human price. In a system that values the winners significantly more than the invisible workers at the bottom, it is not surprising that the bottom levels bear the brunt of the pain when the economic machines begin to break down. But when the winners start to die during periods of immense growth and efficiency, the toxic aspects of that system should be obvious. As the tragic stories from all levels of society trickle through our minds, let us not forget that they are riding the same immense wave that we are – working to make a living, struggling to make ends meet in a river that seems to change current, resisting our attempts to stay afloat. Recognizing the connection is the first step in unraveling the complex web of what bring hopelessness into our lives.

Works Cited

De Mente, Boye Lafayette: “Action Business Codewords: Karoshi.” Asian Pacific Management Forum: May, 2002. http://www.apmforum.com/columns/boye51.htm

Duhigg, Charles and Jack Healy: “Reported Suicide is Latest Shock at Freddie Mac.” The New York Times: April 23, 2009.

The Economist: “Japanese Employees are Working Themselves to Death.” December 19, 2007. http://www.economist.com/world/asia/story_id=10329261

Ehrenreich, Barbara: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Henry Holt and Co., New York: 2001.

Ehrenreich, Barbara: “The Suicide Solution.” The Nation: July 28, 2008. http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080804/ehrenreich

Godoy, Julio: “This Job is Killing Me: Authoritarian Corporate Model Spurring Suicides in Europe.” IPS News: Ocotber 21, 2009. http://www.alternet.org/story/143359/

Nishiyama, Katsuo and Jeffrey V. Johnson: “Karoshi–Death From Overwork: Occupational Health Consequences of the Japanese Production Management.” The International Journal of Health Services: February 4, 1997. http://www.workhealth.org/whatsnew/lpkarosh.html

Turse, Nick: “Arson, Suicide, and Murder Mark the Economic Crisis, and We’re Not Hearing About It.” Tomdispatch.com: October 20, 2008. http://www.alternet.org/story/103656/

Turse, Nick: “Economic Fallout Has Spurred an Epidemic of Murder and Suicide That Has Gone Largely Unnoticed.” Tomdispatch.com: June 5, 2009. http://www.alternet.org/story/140455

Turse, Nick: “Economic Crisis is Getting Bloody – Violent Deaths are Now Following Evictions, Foreclosures and Job Losses.” Alternet.org: November 20, 2009. http://www.alternet.org/story/143990