Time to consign ‘death by overwork’ to Japan’s history

A 24-year-old pressured to work long, hard hours beyond what she could tolerate at the largest advertising agency in Japan jumped from her third-floor dorm room on Christmas Day of last year.

This story went viral, and labor researchers around the country mumbled to themselves, “Dentsu again?”

Dentsu is an ad giant notorious for brutal work hours and its merciless management style. Any labor law textbook worth its salt that covers karōshi (death by overwork) will also introduce the Supreme Court’s famous Dentsu death-by-overwork case. In August 1991 a man, also 24, hanged himself at his home. In 2000, Japan’s highest court ruled that the “suicide was caused by horrendous working conditions.” Eventually Dentsu and the surviving family agreed on a settlement of ¥168 million.

Upon hearing the Oct. 7 ruling by a labor standards inspection office in Tokyo that overwork at Dentsu had taken the life of another 24-year-old, I had to wonder whether the company had learned anything over the past quarter-century. Matsuri Takahashi joined the company in April 2015 after graduating from the University of Tokyo, no doubt full of hope and optimism. So what drove her over the edge in just eight months?

Dentsu first placed Matsuri in the internet advertising division, where she basically dealt with banner ads. Over the next six months, however, the firm shrank the number of employees in that division from 14 to six. But the workload didn’t shrink. Matsuri started clocking over 100 hours of overtime a month. She chronicled her growing fatigue on Twitter:

“My boss told me the documents I wrote after coming back from vacation were s—-. I’m mentally and physically devastated.”

“They decided again I’ll have to work Saturdays and Sundays. I seriously just want to end it all.”

“It’s 4 o’clock. My body is trembling … I just can’t do this. I’m gonna die. I’m so tired.”

“I have lost all feeling except the desire to sleep.”

“Every night I can’t sleep because I’m terrified of tomorrow arriving.”

“This is not just whining but I’m really in trouble with my health. I’m going to keel over …”

The word “death” started appearing in her tweets shortly before she died:

“What will be left of my life even if I manage somehow to overcome this daily stress while thinking of death?”

“Perhaps death is a much happier option.”

At the very end, she tweeted the verbal abused dished out by her boss:

“Twenty hours of your overtime work is worthless to the company.”

“Your sleepy face during meetings shows you are incapable of managing the work.”

“Don’t come to work with that messy hair and those bloodshot eyes!”

“My boss told me I have no femininity. Even if he was just trying to get a laugh, I can’t stand this anymore.”

Skimming over her tweets is heartbreaking. As her Twitter messages went viral, the nation soon came to know her pain, and many said they were brought to tears. In particular, women felt deep sadness and rage that even when Matsuri was at the end of her physical and mental tether, her male boss demanded she show some “girl appeal” and maintain a beautiful, feminine appearance. I think all female workers have felt this kind of pressure to some degree or other.

On Christmas morning, she emailed her mother in Shizuoka: “Thank you for everything.” Her mother hurriedly called her daughter and begged her not to kill herself. But even her mother’s voice was not enough to pull her back from the brink.

The news of Matsuri’s suicide reminded me of Tsuneichi Miyamoto’s 1962 nonfiction work “Nihon Zankoku Monogatari” (“Cruel Tales from Japan”). Miyamoto vividly describes in painstaking detail the plight of workers brutally exploited in Japan in the decades before the war.

The introduction of capitalism to prewar modern Japan stripped men and women, young and old, of their human rights, pitted workers against each other and drove them to toil until they dropped. In the 1920s, teenage girls worked over 15 hours a day at textile mills, leading many to fall ill with cholera or tuberculosis.

Factory owners would then fire these girls because they were worthless as laborers. Many of them were simply abandoned, ill, left to die on the street. In this system intentionally set up so that the girls had to compete with each other to survive, many committed suicide or had mental breakdowns.

Matsuri didn’t work in a factory in the inhuman environment of the prewar era, when labor law barely existed. Rather, she was someone who had succeeded, someone to be admired or envied. She had graduated from the University of Tokyo (Todai) and lined up a sweet gig at Dentsu, the largest ad agency in Japan. In Japan, you can’t get a better resume than Todai followed by Dentsu.

Yet she was forced to work in a way that denied her human rights, with her male boss ordering her to smile her way through it and stay feminine and pretty because she was a woman. In the cutthroat world of her workplace, she had no one to turn to for help, so she simply broke down, shut down. Her position was hardly much better than that endured by the textile girls before World War II.

A few years ago it became fashionable to use the words “winner” (kachi-gumi) and “loser” (make-gumi) in Japan. The popularity of these Trumpian terms has dropped off slightly, but even today there is a strong belief here in “winning” schools and corporations.

A “good” university is one that rates above the median. A “good” company means a large one. Those who get into these universities or companies are the winners of our society. To avoid becoming reclassified as a loser, young people have no choice but to compete relentlessly among themselves and knock one another down. In such an environment, winning provides no assurance of peace of mind, because you must always worry about being the next to be knocked down.

My guess is that Matsuri at first chose to accept and roll with the endless competition thrust upon her when she started working at Dentsu. But sometimes in a male-centric company that demands women show their “girl appeal,” women can end up working in even crueler and more ridiculous conditions than men.

One male university professor who used to work at a large finance company took to Twitter to weigh in on the recent case of Dentsu vs. the Takahashi family: “Karoshi after just 100 hours of overtime? Pathetic!” He was promptly pilloried by the public and apologized. Pretty quick to disavow his principles and apologize for such a tough guy, in my opinion.

It cannot be denied that the mentality expressed by this professor remains deeply rooted at many corporations today in Japan, where the “corporate warrior” who battles fiercely with everything mental and physical is idealized. With all my heart, I hope that this corporate-warrior mentality takes no more young lives.

Young workers must know their rights and learn to stand up and raise their voices. This calls for a new type of corporate warrior: one who battles to protect the lives of their friends and co-workers, not just themselves.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union. She can be reached at tozen.okunuki@gmail.com. Labor Pains appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Originally published in The Japan Times.