Japan: Death By Overwork In Japan: Cultivating A Healthy Workforce From Across The World

Last Updated: 12 December 2017
Article by Jean Kim and Bonnie Puckett

In the wake of increased international focus on karoshi—a common Japanese term meaning "death by overwork"—Japan's government and business leaders alike agree that Japan's "culture of overwork" is a critical issue in need of a solution. Consider the following events of last month:

  • A broadcasting company announced on its own program that Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (厚生労働省 Kōsei-rōdō-shō), had previously held it responsible for a 31-year-old journalist's 2013 death from congestive heart failure after working over 150 overtime hours in a month.
  • A Japan court penalized (albeit with a nominal fine) a large advertising agency in connection with a 24-year-old employee's December 2015 suicide that Japan's Labour Standards Bureau (労働基準局 Rōdō kijunkyoku) had previously found was karoshi. In the weeks leading up to her death, the recently hired employee had spoken about her stress on social media, often slept two hours a night, and underreported hours at her supervisors' direction. In 2016, the agency head resigned over this incident, and the new head and other senior executives accepted a voluntary pay cut.
  • The Japanese government published its second annual paper on the prevention of karoshi, having concluded in its first report the previous year that a staggering one in five Japanese employees were at risk of death from overwork.

Though a longstanding concept in Japan, karoshi usually remains a private matter among the parties involved, often at the family's behest. (The broadcasting company, for example, cited its respect for the family's wishes in explaining why it had previously kept the matter quiet.) But the notion of work driving a person to heart failure or suicide shocks the collective conscience of an increasingly global workforce—leading to publicity, outrage and, hopefully, sustainable change.

Even after acknowledging the seriousness of the problem, curbing the forces underlying karoshi poses a real challenge for leaders. Researchers say that the so-called "culture of overwork" arises from employees' ingrained drive to seek professional achievement at any cost, placing success above even their own health. Laws on the books have thus far failed to overcome the culture of overwork on a widespread basis. The primary employment statute in Japan, the Labour Standards Act (労働基準法 Rōdō kijun-hō), most recently amended in 2012, requires premium overtime and night-shift pay for all employees except senior executives—and exemptions akin to those found under the United States' Fair Labor Standards Act do not exist. Even if properly paid, the law caps overtime hours at 45 hours per month and 360 hours per year.

Japan's Labour Contract Act (労働契約法 Rōdō keiyaku-hō), which deals with workplace safety, separately requires employers to create comfortable working environments, maintain reasonable working conditions, and provide necessary considerations to foster worker safety and health—including mental health. The Industrial Safety and Health Act (労働安全衛生法 Rōdō anzen eisei-hō) also requires employers to pay for all employees to undergo doctors' physical examinations each year to ensure fitness for duty, identify any work-related health concerns, and—quite contrary to our U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) sensibilities concerning the privacy of health information—to maintain the results on file.

Last year, Japan's government even increased the number of public holidays in an attempt to force workers to take days off from work. The government also initiated a nationwide campaign—"Premium Fridays"—to encourage workers to leave work by 3:00 p.m. on the last Friday of each month, specifically to engage in recreational activities. The food and beverage industry and entertainment industry each started providing happy hour-esque discounts on those Fridays in the late afternoons and early evenings. Some regional governments have even encouraged a "lights out" practice where employers turn off office or building lights by a certain time so that employees are forced to leave.

Internationally headquartered employers may be at a disadvantage with respect to some of these initiatives. Japanese employees reporting to foreign companies often work irregular hours and easily evade "lights out"-type programs by working from home. Headquarters management sometimes has little visibility on ongoing issues, either because their Japanese operations are autonomous or because no one is willing to speak up. And though reports (internal and external) and court claims are on the rise—a likely consequence of the media's treatment of the issue of karoshi—the government's recent white paper confirms that top management is often unaware of overwork. In situations where supervisors pressure employees to underreport hours, for example, Japanese employees are reluctant to tell on an authority figure. The language barrier may increase intimidation from those otherwise inclined to raise a concern.

For employers headquartered outside Japan, here are a few points to consider:

  • Take employee concerns seriously. Because many concerns about workload are raised during discussions of low performance or employment termination, employers are understandably skeptical. If employees begin raising individual concerns, employers should—while not jumping to any conclusions—consider the possibility that the issues are real and broader than just a single employee. Management may want to consider complaints, discussions, or mentions of decreased performance being due to overwork, exhaustion, or stress, and perhaps engage with the employee (e.g., "What do you think would help here?" "Do you need to work part-time?" "Would you like time off?")
  • Offer amicable separations. When an employee mentions overwork or stress, it may be advantageous to offer the employee a way out: A little bit of encouragement as to the overall benefits of better health and well-being, with separation pay, can go a long way.
  • Increase headquarters face time. In a culture of overwork, it may be prudent to set the proper tone at the top. Consider increasing face time with employees in Japan by scheduling training sessions surrounding workplace culture or the company's code of conduct and policies.
  • Consider revising contracts and policies. Remind employees that they are responsible for accurately tracking their hours and reporting them to their supervisors—specify that the employee is responsible for accurately tracking hours and reporting to his/her supervisor, and consider noting in the open-door or grievance policy (or its equivalent) that employees are encouraged to report their concerns about overwork or work-life balance.
  • Consider a labor management agreement. A labor management agreement is a formal agreement between the Japan employer and its employee representatives (or in the absence of those, all employees collectively) that allows agreed-upon alternative overtime work arrangements.
  • Consider offering health and stress checks. It may make sense to provide free health checks and "stress checks" to your Japan employees, regardless of the size of operations. The Industrial Safety and Health Act requires employers to offer annual stress checks (at employers' expense) in workplaces with 50 or more employees. The key is to offer the opportunity, not to mandate the checks. This requirement went into effect to help employees maintain their mental health; the check examines causes and symptoms of work-related stress and provides resources for personal support if applicable. Employers are charged with establishing measures to reduce any work-related stress if a physician determines that an employee is stressed due to work. Employers with workplaces of 50 or more employees must also submit annual reports on their stress-check results and available resources to the Labor Standards Bureau.

Heaven forbid any employee or employer ever experiences a tragic event like karoshi. The lessons learned from these cautionary tales may help employers prevent further such incidents.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions