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.

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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.

Google Unveils a Digital Marketing & E-Commerce Certificate: 7 Courses Will Help Prepare Students for an Entry-Level Job in 6 Months

During the pandemic, Google launched a series of Career Certificates that will “prepare learners for an entry-level role in under six months.” Their first certificates focused on Project Management, Data Analytics, User Experience (UX) Design, IT Support and IT Automation. Now comes their latest–a certificate dedicated to Digital Marketing & E-commerce.

Offered on the Coursera platform, the Digital Marketing & E-commerce Professional Certificate consists of seven courses, all collectively designed to help students “develop digital marketing and e-commerce strategies; attract and engage customers through digital marketing channels like search and email; measure marketing analytics and share insights; build e-commerce stores, analyze e-commerce performance, and build customer loyalty.” The courses include:

In total, this program “includes over 190 hours of instruction and practice-based assessments, which simulate real-world digital marketing and e-commerce scenarios that are critical for success in the workplace.” Along the way, students will learn how to use tools and platforms like Canva, Constant Contact, Google Ads, Google Analytics, Hootsuite, HubSpot, Mailchimp, Shopify, and Twitter. You can start a 7-day free trial and explore the courses. If you continue beyond that, Google/Coursera will charge $39 USD per month. That translates to about $235 after 6 months.

If you don’t want to pay, you can audit each course for free, without ultimately receiving the certificate.

Explore the Digital Marketing & E-commerce Professional Certificate.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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How Eating Kentucky Fried Chicken Became a Christmas Tradition in Japan

This time of year, the internet thrills to the fact that the Japanese eat Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas. Those Japanese customers who want a premium KFC dinner with all the trimmings ready by Christmas Eve should reserve it well in advance, much as they do with the elaborately decorated kurisumasu keeki that follows it as dessert. Less well-understood are the origins of this curious modern custom. The Japanese themselves, even those who religiously tuck into a Colonel Sanders-branded Christmas dinner each year, are subject to certain misconceptions. At least in my experience, every Japanese person has expressed surprise when told that KFC at Christmastime is not an American tradition.

KFC’s marketing in Japan has long exploited an association with American heritage, implicitly or indeed explicitly.” Colonel Sanders is discovered as a boy of seven baking rye bread in the roomy kitchen of his ‘old Kentucky home,'” writes Japanologist John Nathan in his memoir Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere, describing a KFC television commercial of the 1980s.


“‘A lifetime later,’ the narrator intoned, ‘this same tradition of excellence was transferred by the Colonel to his fried chicken.’ The preposterous selling point was KFC as traditional, aristocratic food from the American South. I couldn’t imagine a more amusing example of an American advertiser playing to Japan’s national obsession with American values and manners.”

This commercial appears in The Colonel Comes to Japan, a 1981 half-hour documentary Nathan filmed for the WGBH business series Enterprise. So does Loy Weston, the American executive in charge of KFC’s Japanese operations, who insists that the aristocracy angle offers no “consumer benefit.” But when informed by a Japanese executive that the spot tested better than any they’d produced before, he responds simply: “I give up. This is Japan.” Four decades later, Westerners who want to succeed doing business in the Land of the Rising Sun must still share that attitude — especially when presented with strategies they lack the cultural grounding to comprehend.

KFC’s presence in Japan goes back to 1970, when its first store opened for the Osaka World Expo. Its manager Takeshi Okawara was the one to think of promoting the chain’s “party barrels” of chicken as a festive substitute for an American-style turkey dinner. The inspiration, according to the Cheddar Examines video at the top of the post, was being asked by a local school to deliver chicken to its Christmas party dressed as Santa Claus. (His willingness to do so no doubt played a part in his later becoming Japanese KFC’s chief executive.) Within a few years “Kentucky Christmas” had become a household phrase, and one still used in the more recent TV commercials compiled just above.

In Japan, a country where Christians constitute just one or two percent of the population, eating KFC has become one of Christmas’ primary cultural associations. The Christmas song “Sutekina Holiday” by Mariya Takeuchi — now world-famous as the singer of the revived-by-Youtube 1980s dance tune “Plastic Love” — is commonly known as “the Kentucky Christmas song.” With Christmastime business accounting for a startling ten percent of Japanese KFC’s sales in any given year, measures have been taken to ensure that the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t put too much of a dent into it: the introduction of some social distancing, for example, into its notoriously long holiday lines. Kentucky Christmas has proven a success year after year in Japan, but thus far it hasn’t been adopted in other Asian countries. It certainly hasn’t in Korea, where I live — but then again, we’ve got much better fried chicken out here.

Related Content:

Hōshi: A Short Film on the 1300-Year-Old Hotel Run by the Same Japanese Family for 46 Generations

In Japanese Schools, Lunch Is As Much About Learning As It’s About Eating

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Watch Andy Warhol Eat an Entire Burger King Whopper–While Wishing the Burger Came from McDonald’s (1981)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include 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 or on Facebook.

John Cleese Presents His 5-Step Plan for Shorter, More Productive Meetings (1976)

Let’s face it, meetings are boring at best and at worst, chaotic, volatile, and potentially violent. And let’s also face it: to get through life as functioning adults, we’re going to have to sit through one or two of them — or even one or two of them a week.

Maybe we’re the one who calls the meetings, and maybe they all feel like a waste of time. One solution is to have more informal meetings. This can be especially tempting in the age of work-from-home, when it’s impossible to know how many meeting attendees are wearing pants. Fewer rules can raise the spontaneity quotient, but allowing for the unexpected can invite disaster as well as epiphany.


On the other end of the scale, we have the formality of parliamentary rules of order, such as those introduced by U.S. Army officer Henry Martyn Robert in 1876. Robert, whose father was the first president of Morehouse College, gained a wealth of experience with unproductive meetings as he traveled around the country with the Army. One particular meeting became a defining experience, as one account has it:

While in San Francisco, the local leader of his community didn’t show up for a church meeting. Henry Robert was asked to preside over the town hall (without any prior notice). Let’s just say that on this particular evening in 1876, he did a bad job. An hour into the meeting, people were screaming and the church actually erupted into open conflict.

Sadly, this sort of thing has become almost routine at town halls and school board meetings. But it needn’t be so at the office. Nor, says John Cleese in the brief video above, do meetings need to follow the formality of parliamentary procedure.

Cleese’s rules are simpler even than the simplified Roberts or Rosenberg’s Rules of Order, an even more simplified version of Robert’s Rules. Furthermore, Cleese avoids using words like “Rules” which can be a turn-off in our egalitarian times. Instead, he presents us with a “5-Step Plan” for holding better and shorter meetings.

1. Plan — Clear your mind about the precise objectives of the meeting. Be clear why you need it and list the subjects.
2. Inform — Make sure everyone knows exactly what is being discussed, why, and what you want from the discussion. Anticipate what information and people may be needed and make sure they’re there.
3. Prepare — Prepare the logical sequence items. Prepare the time allocation to each item on the basis of its importance not its urgency.
4. Structure and Control — Take the evidence stage before the interpretation stage and that before the action stage and stop people jumping ahead or going back over ground.
5. Summarize all decision and record them straight away with the name of the person responsible for any action

Easy, right? Well, maybe not so easy in practice, but these steps can, at the very least, illuminate what’s wrong with your meetings, which may currently resemble one of Cleese’s many parodies of business culture. Nobody videophoned it in at the time, but trying to figure out who’s supposed to be doing what can still take up an afternoon. Let Cleese’s five steps bring order to the chaos.

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John Cleese on How “Stupid People Have No Idea How Stupid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dunning-Kruger Effect)

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Monty Python’s John Cleese Creates Ads for the American Philosophical Association

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Become a Project Manager Without a College Degree with Google’s Project Management Certificate

As we first mentioned last year, Google has launched a series of Career Certificate programs that allow students to gain expertise in a field, ideally enough to start working without a 4-year college degree. This initiative now includes a Certificate in Project Management, which consists of six courses.

  • Foundations of Project Management
  • Project Initiation: Starting a Successful Project
  • Project Planning: Putting It All Together
  • Project Execution: Running the Project
  • Agile Project Management
  • Capstone: Applying Project Management in the Real World

Above, a Program Manager talks about “her path from dropping out of high school and earning a GED, joining the military, and working as a coder, to learning about program management and switching into that career track.” An introduction to the Project Management certificate appears below.

The Project Management program takes about six months to complete, and should cost about $250 in total. Students get charged $39 per month until they complete the program.

You can explore the Project Management certificate here. And find other Google career certificates in other fields–e.g. UX Design and Data Analytics–over on this page. All Google career courses are hosted on the Coursera platform.

Find more online certificate programs from an array of providers here.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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150 Free Online Business Courses

Design Thinking for the Greater Good: A Free Online Course from the University of Virginia

Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector shows how and why human-centered design is a powerful tool. Offered by the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, the course lets students “view design thinking success stories from around the world, in areas as diverse as government, health care, and education.” Throughout the course, students will “learn the tools, techniques and mindset needed to use design thinking to uncover new and creative solutions in the social sector.”

You can take Design Thinking for the Greater Good for free by selecting the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the course for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.

Design Thinking for the Greater Good has been added to our list of Free Business Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Startup School: Take YCombinator’s Free Online Course for Current & Aspiring Entrepreneurs

If you’re working on a startup, take note. YCombinator–a well-known Silicon Valley accelerator–has created Startup School, a free online program for entrepreneurs. The school has a track for current startup founders, and another one for aspiring/eventual founders. In each case, the school strives to offer the best lessons and advice on how to start a startup, while building “a community of entrepreneurs who can encourage, teach and support one another.” Startup School is completely free. You just need a device with access to the internet. View the curriculum here. (Topics include everything from “How to Get Start Up Ideas” and “How to Pitch a Startup,” to “How to Find the Right Co-Founder” and “How to Split Equity.”) And sign up here.

This course will be added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Ray Dalio & Adam Grant Launch Free Online Personality Assessment to Help You Understand Yourself (and Others Understand You)

Back in 2017, Ray Dalio published Principles: Life and Work, a bestselling book where the creator of the world’s largest hedge fund shared “the unconventional principles that he’s developed, refined, and used over the past forty years to create unique results in both life and business.” You can find a distilled version of those unconventional principles in a 30-minute animation video previously featured on our site.

To accompany his book, Dalio has now released, along with University of Pennsylvania organizational psychologist Adam Grant, a free personality assessment tool called PrinciplesYou. The assessment takes about 30 to 40 minutes to complete, and we would strongly encourage you to sign up for an account before you get started, so that you can save the results of the assessment afterwards. Otherwise you will lose the results.


According to psychologist Brian Little, “PrinciplesYou was developed over a two-year intensive and creative R&D process with two goals in mind. First, it measures traits that Ray Dalio and his team have observed and studied for many years as critical for personal and organizational success. Second, it is based on the latest research in personality science. The assessment provides a person’s score on a comprehensive set of traits, their underlying facets and interactive patterns, and it has high reliability, internal structure, re-test reliability and validity of these traits and facets. A distinctive strength is its ability to predict an extraordinary array of actual behaviors observed by the Bridgewater staff over many years.”

Adam Grant adds: “To achieve success, you need to know yourself and the people around you. Although your car comes with an owner’s manual, your mind doesn’t—and neither do your colleagues. We designed PrinciplesYou to help you gain the self-awareness and other-awareness that are critical to making good decisions, getting things done, and turning a group of coworkers into a great team.”

You can watch Grant and Dalio discuss PrinciplesYou above. You can listen to Grant feature Dalio’s insights on his Work Life podcast here. And finally you can start the free personality assessment here.

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