- What is the definition of Karoshi anyway?

by Karoshi Mike

Karoshi is a Japanese term meaning “death from overwork”.  While in the U.S. this may seem impossible, it is not the case in Japan.  The first known case of karoshi was reported by the Japan’s largest newspaper company’s shipping department when a 29 year old man died from a stroke.  This man was the first of many deaths over the years, with the numbers now reaching an estimated 10,000 deaths per year.

Karoshi is believed to be caused by the management style called Japanese Production Management, which focuses on high production rates.  Many of those who work under this style of management work between 60 and 100 hours per week in high paced, high production oriented positions.  Karoshi deaths are actually feared by many of the families and employees who work under these conditions.

Karoshi deaths are usually stroke and heart attack, and are broken down into six major categories:
  • Subarachnoidal hemorrhage (around 18%)
  • Cerebral thrombosis/infarction (7%)
  • Cerebral hemorrhage (17%)
  • Heart failure (19%)
  • Myocardial Infarction (10%)
  • Other causes (29%)
The term karoshi was  not used to describe occupational deaths until 1982, when three physicians published the book Karoshi , which described case studies to determine the cause of death in several known cases since 1970.  These physicians determined that karoshi deaths were the result of irregular work schedules, shift work, and working long hours, with many of the recorded deaths being workers who were working more than 3,000 hours per year prior to their deaths.

While interest in karoshi began to increase in 1969 with the first reported death, there were none of these types of deaths reported in the Western countries, but there had been studies that indicated that people matching the Type A behavior profiles were more likely to suffer from coronary disease, and thus more susceptible to karoshi.  However, Japanese physicians and researchers dismissed this due to none of the reported deaths being anyone from the managerial or executive levels, which were the main groups found to be at risk in the Western countries.

It was not until 1992 that the Ministry of Labor began to show significant interest in karoshi, by requiring those filing worker’s compensation claims to prove that the work the employee was doing prior to death was indeed burdensome.  In order for the victims’ families to be eligible for compensation, the employee had to have worked 16 hours a day for the previous 7 days leading up to their death, or they had to have been working for 24 hours straight prior to their death.  However, if the employee had been granted even one day off during the previous 7 days, regardless of the number of hours worked, their families were ineligible for compensation.

While karoshi is a great concern in Japan, the measures being taken even today are minimal, with an employee exceeding standard overtime hours in a 3 month period being required to receive a health examination to determine their risks prior to returning to work.