Making Overwork History in Japan

It is not a new problem. Death from overwork has been publicly discussed for decades in Japan. Yet the recent suicide of a woman in Tokyo to escape the ravages of overwork at Dentsu has come to represent how endemic the issue has become for many who seek a better life in Japan.

Matsuri Takahashi was so desperate and felt so trapped, she jumped off the roof of her dormitory late last year.(1) The division where she was employed had gone from fourteen employees to six although the workload had not diminished. As the months went by, she felt exasperated and trapped that the only way out for her was to kill herself.

What is it that creates a work culture where employees are meant to feel fortunate to have a position in such a prestigious firm and where management feels entitled enough to take disregard one's dignity and self-worth and abuse a person to death?

It is a complicated web of cultural and historical norms. Japan has historically been a producer oriented society where consumers take the back seat. This manifests itself in the workplace where workers are often required to do what they are told with workloads added at will. This is one reason why job descriptions are intentionally kept vague in Japan. Add to the mix the power of group pressure to conform by not making waves and add a little "look the other way" mentality when abuse occurs and you have a dangerous cocktail.

How does one change such traditions and cultural norms? Bullying has been a deep rooted part of Japanese culture for many centuries. So has maintaining harmony and avoiding conflict inside a group. While core to Japan's nature, it is clear some historically ignored social deficiencies need to change. But will they?

I have previously written about the power of "Gaman" and "Sho ga nai" (grin and bear it + it can't be helped) in Japan.(2) And I have noted the challenges associated with revising some Japanese cultural norms in order for Japan to successfully adapt to a multi-cultural society where there are many ways to get things done.

It is long past time for Japanese to stand up and make this happen. Yet knowing Japan as I do, this will not happen without sufficient monetary pain and public shame. We are nowhere near that level of pain.