Библиографическое описание:

Аксенова Н. В., Волков С. Ю., Селиверстов И. С. Karoshi phenomenon as one of the Japanese cultural peculiarities in business communication // Молодой ученый. — 2015. — №11. — С. 1233-1237.

In this paper we would like to present such cultural japanese phenomenon as Karoshi. This phenomenon is known as one of the serious obstacles in business because a great amount of men aged 30 to 59 mostly suffer from it due to stress that they have while doing business. The term karoshi means sudden death from overwork and it is really a national social problem that causes heart attack or make people commit suicide. Now some new measures to prevent this problem are proposed as a solution.

Key words: Japan, karoshi, business, stress, death, ergology.


During our English classes we studied business communication and cultures of foreign countries. English language [1, p. 481] serves as a tool in understanding foreign cultures and thus providing grounds for deeper understanding of our own culture. Studies of Business English are naturally accompanied by studies of business culture of English-speaking countries which may be as diverse as the United Kingdom and the Philippines, or New Zealand and Nigeria. Nowadays in our globalized world English language is an international language of business, so we also studied foreign non-English business ethics and cultural norms, some of them are strikingly different from ours. This is justified, because in most practical matters doing business with businesses from non-English speaking country involves English. Understanding business culture of other countries may also help in building the case for development of Russian business ethics from synthesis of the more appropriate elements of other cultures.

Our task was to prepare oral presentation about business ethics and ways of running business in one of the countries of the world according to rules for presentation [2, p. 869]. To do this job properly the stusents need to find the reliable information via the Internet [3, p. 465] and books so that it helps to perform good communication. Japan was chosen as an example to speak about and according to the information chosen about the country and its main peculiarities we found out the national cliche and national business strategies. This country has a well-developed and very specific work ethics which is grounded in Japanese traditions of not only the ruling class (bushido) but the lower classes as well. The Japanese work ethics kept a lot of pre-industrial, feudal principles and thus it is based on life-long employment implying life-long loyalty to the company as the employee's sovereign.

“Employees are expected to work hard and demonstrate loyalty to the firm, in exchange for some degree of job security and benefits, such as housing subsidies, good insurance, the use of recreation facilities, and bonuses and pensions. Wages begin low, but seniority is rewarded, with promotions based on a combination of seniority and ability. Leadership is not based on assertiveness or quick decision making but on the ability to create consensus, taking into account the needs of subordinates” [4]. Unlimited loyalty converts into unlimited commitment to one's job which may be bounded only by physical abilities of the employee. An extreme case where loyalty wins over physical needs is known as karoshi.

Karoshi is a Japanese word “meaning death from overwork. This term has been used since the 1970s. In 1978 there was a report on 17 karoshi cases at the 51st annual meeting of the Japan Association of Industrial Health. Karoshi is not a pure medical term but a sociomedical term that refers to fatalities or associated work disability due to cardiovascular attacks (such as brain strokes, myocardial infarction or acute cardiac failure) aggravated by a heavy workload and long working hours. The phenomenon was first identified in Japan, and the word is now adopted internationally” [5].

The term “workaholics” is used to describe people working up to 80 hours a week. In Japanese culture there are too many workaholics. In this country people are literally working themselves to death. Nowadays a lot of companies have started to monitor compliance of the rules of working time. The Japanese are not allowed to stay at work overtime. Also in this country, you are not allowed to miss your deserved vacation. Otherwise working leads to a great stress. Stress has become one of the most serious health issues of the 20th century. That leads not only to the heath damage but also to the financial damage for employers and government. Japanese workers always suffered from heavy stress because of long working hours, and even from Karoshi. The main medical causes of Karoshi deaths are heart attack, stroke due to stress and a starvation diet.

The first case of Karoshi was in 1969 when 29-year-old worker in the shipping department of Japan's large newspaper company died. Karoshi wasn’t recognized until 1980 when during the financial crisis, several high-ranking business executives who were in their prime years and had no signs of the disease suddenly died. Media announced the new phenomenon. It was called Karoshi and it was immediately seen as a new and serious danger for people who work lot. In 1987 the Japanese government began to publish statistics on Karoshi. The Prime Minister of Japan Keizo Obuchi died because of Karoshi in 2000. During 20 month at his post he had only three days off and worked for no less than 12 hours a day.

According to the law the maximum working hours is 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week. But this law cannot be applied to all workers. In some service sectors and small to medium sized companies, the regulations cannot be applied. As over 64 per cent of the working population in Japan work for such companies, they are many exceptions to the Labour Standards Act, with people working in excess of the prescribed 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week. Moreover, there is no official regulation limiting overtime work.

“The interesting fact is that there has not been any official acknowledgement from the government on «Karoshi», which has not appeared in any of the official papers published by the Japanese Government. The number of applicants claiming insurance by reason of Karoshi annually is about 500, which is only 5 % of the 10,000 victims of Karoshi each year. The number of successful claims is only between 30 to 40 per year, that is under 10 % of the total applications and less than one % of annual Karoshi victims” [6].

The problem of overwork in the country is very serious. It was estimated that 8 to 10 million Japanese workers or one fourth of the male workforce, work over 3,000 hours annually, and amongst them are surely many potential Karoshi victims. Moreover, workers often spend over 2 hours a day commuting from their homes to their workplaces. A typical Japanese worker leaves home at 7 in the morning and returns after 11 at night. Some call this lifestyle «Seven-Eleven» [4]. In Japan there are special «mini-hotels», located near the offices and large corporations, where for a small fee any worker can sleep and eat. In Japanese society most people earn enough to enjoy a relatively comfortable standard of living. But the situation with overtime greatly affects the family. Over 80 % of Japanese women want their husbands spend more time with their children, while young men often come home until late evening. They rarely see their children. Even if they come home early, their children are asleep. Some can’t even have children because they just can’t even get time off work to take care of them. 1 of 5 Japanese men works more than 60 hours a week, not including the unaccounted time and working communication. People have only 30 minutes a day to communicate with their family. Because of this rhythm of life, they can’t start a family.

Why is it that Japanese people work so hard? The historical background may be important, but there is no clear evidence that Japanese people worked harder than the people of other pre industrial societies. Firstly, the Japanese are famous for dedication to their job. Employees think that at the time they rest they put their work at the shoulders of their colleagues. Also, processing and free overtime are signs of loyalty to the company, which, of course, helps career and therefore neither of the Japanese office worker wouldn’t like to demonstrate his zeal and diligence. Younger workers feel uncomfortable going home before their bosses do. It sometimes makes them stay at work even at night.

Big Japanese corporations have contracts with high school students, who are going to work for them. It turns out that as soon as the Japanese are starting to get a higher education, they already know where they will work. And the choice of employment, in most cases is a one choice in the whole life. In Japan companies encourage workers to be dedicated to the company promising rewards and promotions. The longer you work the higher your rank is, and the bigger amount of money you earn. Thus, promotion and raising the level of income depends on the quality of the employee that creates a competition within the organization. Within any given company, strong competition within industry sectors, among sections within firms and factories, and among team-based small groups are the engine powering its production process. This organized competition lies at the heart of Japanese management practices. That is why people have the patriotism in relation to their company. The Japanese often say they love their place of work and are proud of belonging to the company. Concern about the future of the company and hard work makes people work 13 hours a day, he could not have a positive effect on health.

Moreover, the weak power of workers' organizations and their inability to launch successful protests to reduce working hours. Japanese trade unions are isolated within each large company, and there are generally no unions for workers in small companies. The unions were, however, successful in securing higher wages for their members during Japan's period of rapid economic growth, but they made no effort to bring about shorter working hours. Most workers do not indicate the overtime work hours, associating them with their lack of skills, poor exposure to the work, poor performance to finish the work in a shorter period of time. In general, overwork is perceived as a natural part of the work and that’s why the protests against it are very rare. Workers also are scared of the reaction of colleagues, bosses and even family and friends. Due to the pressure of public opinion, official statistics of Japanese companies on overtime work is underestimated. It is a common situation in Japan, where employees are forced to work until 2–3 o'clock in the morning, and then come to work in the office at 9.

The other reason is the non-decision-making by government in regard to working hours. In its 5 year economic plan under the Miyazawa Cabinet, the Japanese government declared that it would bring about 1,800 working hour year. However, the government effected no policy or regulation geared towards restricting overtime work or reducing the incidence of Karoshi.

The next reason relates to international pressure. Japanese companies and the government appeared to examine the prospect of reducing working hours only after attacks from the US and other western governments who argued against the «unequal competition in the world economy» that Japan's disproportionately high working hours was causing. For example, the five-day working-week system of banks and national universities was adopted only after US-Japan trade friction reached boiling point. However, Japan's integration into the world economy has meant that bank officials and workers of securities or insurance companies must keep a constant watch on the world market so that they may adjust to changes in financial markets and to foreign exchange rate fluctuations. Such workers, as well as those of trading companies and transnational corporations must often be prepared to work 24 hours a day to adjust to the movements in world markets, from the Tokyo, the New York to the London markets. This need for 24 hours alertness quite obviously causes tremendous mental stress and can be strongly linked to the recent increase in young Karoshi victims from banks or securities companies.

But we believe that the main reason is psychological. Strong stresses exist because 30–50 -year-old people in Japan can’t find a new job in the case of their dismissal. As mentioned above, the future employees of the company are looked for during their education. The best graduates are selected, who can perform various functions. Also, Japanese companies train employees while working to improve their versatility. At the same time every company has very high demands on the implementation of the work plan and workers just afraid not to do the work because they can be easily replaced by another. It makes people stay on overtime work, which is often not even paid. Also people do not have time for personal and family life, which leads to even worse psychological state, which badly affects the health of the population.

The most important issue confronting the Japanese workplace today is the need to change the present conception of labour. In order to bring about economic democracy in Japan, working hours need to be reduced and the incidence of Karoshi eliminated. The Japanese government finally decided to do something about the endemic culture of overwork, which has been blamed not just on a growing number of deaths, but also the country’s critically low birth rate and declining productivity. The government has sponsored efforts to reduce the work week, encourage more leisure activities, and promote worker health. Some new laws will allow for more flexible work hours, encouraging parents to spend more time with their children during summer months, for instance, when school is closed. Experts say the laws are a start, while acknowledging the roots of the dilemma lie deep. The law makes it the duty of the government to take steps to eliminate overwork-induced deaths or suicides of employed workers, but it does not impose new work-hour regulations or penalties on businesses that have employees work excessive hours.

One thing that can make the corporation to monitor the health of employees is the payment of compensation. In 1988 only about 4 % of applications were successful. By 2005 that share had risen to 40 %. If a death is judged Karoshi, surviving family members may receive compensation of around $20,000 a year from the government and sometimes up to $1m from the company in damages. Now a recent court ruling has put companies under pressure to change their ways. On November 30th the Nagoya District Court accepted Hiroko Uchino's claim that her husband, Kenichi, a third-generation Toyota employee, was a victim of Karoshi when he died in 2002 at the age of 30. He collapsed at 4am at work, having put in more than 80 hours of overtime each month for six months before his death. He left two children, aged one and three. As a manager of quality control, Mr Uchino was constantly training workers, attending meetings and writing reports when not on the production line. Toyota treated almost all that time as voluntary and unpaid. So did the Toyota Labour Standards Inspection Office, part of the labour ministry. But the court ruled that the long hours were an integral part of his job. On December 14th the government decided not to appeal against the verdict.

Toyota now generally limits overtime to 360 hours a year (an average of 30 hours monthly), and, at some offices, issues public address announcements every hour after 7 p.m. pointing out the importance of rest and urging workers to go home. Nissan offers telecommuting for office workers to make it easier to care for children or elderly parents. Dozens of large corporations have also implemented «no overtime days», which require employees to leave the office promptly at 5:30 p.m. However, since their workload is too high, few workers can actually take advantage of this, and opt to stay in the office with the lights off or to simply take their work home. In 2007 Mitsubishi started to allow employees to go home up to 3 hours early to care for children or relatives. As of January 5, 2009, just 34 of the company's 7,000 employees had signed up for the plan.

There is more and more media attention in this issue. The French-German TV channel Arte showed a documentary called «Alt in Japan» (Old in Japan) on 6 November 2006 dealing with older workers in Japan. Taiwanese media have reported few cases of Karoshi. All in all, we think that democracy in the workplace is heavily dependent on political democracy. Further, for political democracy, the elimination of excessive working hours is crucial, at least in contemporary Japan. Moreover, to realize a free and comfortable ecological society, we must revise our conception of labour from the present ergonomic perspective to an ergological one.

On our lesson after the oral presentation we decided to discuss the main measures that could prevent Karoshi and Karojisatsu. They are the following:

1.                  To reduce working hours and excessive work: Efforts to reduce working hours, working late at night and holiday work are indispensable in preventing excessive workload and work hours.

2.                  To provide adequate medical support and treatment: Companies, families and society as a whole should work to improve the level of medical support and access to appropriate medical facilities and counselling mechanisms to prevent Karoshi and Karoujisatsu. Surveys on worker suicide show that most people commit suicide after suffering from a certain degree of mental disorder such as depression. Committing suicide is one aspect of this disease.

3.                  To promote active and effective dialogue between workers and employers to design healthy and efficient work procedures and workplaces. Regular OSH committee activities or risk assessment activities implemented jointly by employers and workers should be useful in reducing the risk of overwork and work-related stress.

To our mind, the disscussion is the necessary part of every oral speech presentation [6, p. 310] as people could share their opinions and ask questions and get the answers they couldn’t find themselves. During the discussion we thought about the principles and solutions that could help to overcome this problem. The theme helped us to go deeper into the japanese culture as one of the business the whole world and particularly Japan. During writing and working with sources of information, we have increased our level of English, studied the phenomenon of «Karoshi», understood the causes of Karoshi and described methods dealing with the problem. At the same time we did learn the japanese culture and also managed to develop our speaking skills.




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