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”

Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:
  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.
  • Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.
    If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here
    If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here

    Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

    Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

    Use of www.mondaq.com

    You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). 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 & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


    Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd 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 or performance of information available from this server.

    The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


    Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

    • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
    • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
    • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

    Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

    Information Collection and Use

    We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

    We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

    Mondaq News Alerts

    In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


    A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

    Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

    Log Files

    We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


    This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

    Surveys & Contests

    From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


    If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


    From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

    *** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


    This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

    Correcting/Updating Personal Information

    If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

    Notification of Changes

    If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

    How to contact Mondaq

    You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

    If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.

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