Dying from Overwork: Disturbing Looks Inside Japan’s Karoshi and China’s “996” Work System

By most mea­sures, Japan boasts the high­est life expectan­cy in the world. But that rank­ing, of course, does­n’t mean that every Japan­ese per­son sees old age. Though the coun­try’s rate of vio­lent crime is low enough to be the envy of most of the world, its sui­cide rate isn’t, and it says even more that the Japan­ese lan­guage has a word that refers specif­i­cal­ly to death by over­work. I first encoun­tered it near­ly thir­ty years ago in Dil­bert com­ic strip. “In Japan, employ­ees occa­sion­al­ly work them­selves to death. It’s called karōshi,” says Dil­bert’s pointy-haired boss. “I don’t want that to hap­pen to any­body in my depart­ment. The trick is to take a break as soon as you see a bright light and hear dead rel­a­tives beck­on.”

You can see the phe­nom­e­non of karōshi exam­ined more seri­ous­ly in the short Now­ness video at the top of the post. In it, a series of Japan­ese salary­men (a Japan­ese Eng­lish term now well-known around the world) speak to the exhaust­ing and unceas­ing rig­ors of their every­day work sched­ules — and, in some cas­es, to the empti­ness of the homes that await them each night.

The CNBC seg­ment just above inves­ti­gates what can be done about such labor con­di­tions, which even in white-col­lar work­places con­tribute to the heart attacks, strokes, and oth­er imme­di­ate caus­es of deaths ulti­mate­ly ascribed to karōshi. In a grim irony, Japan has the low­est pro­duc­tiv­i­ty among the G7 nations: its peo­ple work hard, yet their com­pa­nies are hard­ly work­ing.

Ini­tia­tives to put a stop to the ill effects of over­work, up to and includ­ing karōshi, include manda­to­ry vaca­tion days and office lights that switch off auto­mat­i­cal­ly at 10:00 p.m. Among the lat­est is “Pre­mi­um Fri­day,” a pro­gram explained in the Vice video above. Devel­oped by Kei­dan­ren, Japan’s old­est busi­ness lob­by, it was ini­tial­ly received as “a direct response to karōshi,” but it has its ori­gins in mar­ket­ing. “We want­ed to cre­ate a nation­al event that bol­stered con­sump­tion,” says the direc­tor of Kei­dan­ren’s indus­tri­al pol­i­cy bureau. By that log­ic, it made good sense to let work­ers out ear­ly on Fri­days — let them out to shop. But Pre­mi­um Fri­day has yet to catch on in most Japan­ese enter­pris­es, aware as they are that Japan’s eco­nom­ic might no longer intim­i­dates the world.

The afore­men­tioned low pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, along with a rapid­ly aging and even con­tract­ing pop­u­la­tion, con­tributed to Japan’s loss of its posi­tion as the world’s sec­ond-largest econ­o­my. It was over­tak­en in 2011 by Chi­na, a coun­try with over­work prob­lems of its own. The Vice report above cov­ers the “996” sys­tem, which stands for work­ing from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m, six days a week. Preva­lent in Chi­nese tech com­pa­nies, it has been blamed for stress, ill­ness, and death among employ­ees. Laws lim­it­ing work­ing hours have thus far proven inef­fec­tive, or at least cir­cum­ventable. Cer­tain pun­dits nev­er stop insist­ing that the future is Chi­nese; if they’re right, all this ought to give pause to the work­ers of the world, East­ern and West­ern alike.

Relat­ed con­tent:

“Inemuri,” the Japan­ese Art of Tak­ing Pow­er Naps at Work, on the Sub­way, and Oth­er Pub­lic Places

Why 1999 Was the Year of Dystopi­an Office Movies: What The Matrix, Fight Club, Amer­i­can Beau­ty, Office Space & Being John Malkovich Shared in Com­mon

“Tsun­doku,” the Japan­ese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the Eng­lish Lan­guage

The Employ­ment: A Prize-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion About Why We’re So Dis­en­chant­ed with Work Today

What is the Secret to Liv­ing a Long, Hap­py & Cre­ative­ly Ful­fill­ing Life?: Dis­cov­er the Japan­ese Con­cept of Iki­gai

Charles Bukows­ki Rails Against 9‑to‑5 Jobs in a Bru­tal­ly Hon­est Let­ter (1986)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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