Death by Overwork
Corporate Pressure on Employees
Takes a Fatal Toll in Japan
Tokyo -- Inside a hospital room that Toshiko Kanaya now calls home, dried roses hang on the walls along with pictures of her once healthy family. Holding back tears, she stands over her still husband, positioning him upward on his bed.

In 1991, during an ordinary day of work, Kazumi Kanaya suddenly fell ill and was rushed to the hospital. A victim of overwork, he is now in a coma and lies helplessly in a hospital bed in a small town north of Tokyo.

This is the underside of life at Toyota Motors, the Japanese corporation glamorized throughout the world for efficient production techniques. As a sales manager for Tokyo Toyota Motors, Kanaya worked up to 7 days a week for 12 hours a day or more. The continual stress he suffered on the job, his wife says, contributed to gout which led to meningitis. For years, he suffered from painful attacks. Mrs. Kanaya pleaded with her husband to go to the hospital for a checkup, but since his work schedule was so busy, he could not find the time to go. Toward the end, she says, the pain was so extreme that he had to use a cane to walk.

In a country where driving workers to extremes is deeply ingrained in corporate culture, Kanaya's case is not unique. Government sources and worker advocates report thousands of workers who are killed by overwork, commit suicide due to work-related stress, or suffer mental breakdowns due to work-related demands.

The Political Economy of Overwork
Mr. Kanaya managed an entire office at Toyota. Top level management demands required him to stay at the office around the clock. "The branch of his office was new and the managers wanted to be on the top of the sales charts, so everyone was worked very hard," says Mrs. Kanaya. "He worked particularly late at the beginning and end of the month, when he had to stay at work at least until past 10 p.m. to complete the sales."

Toyota Motors did not allow its employees to take the weekends off, says Mrs. Kanaya. "It was typical for the company to force him to work 35 days without even one day of rest to spend time with his family," Mrs. Kanaya recalls. "The only time he had more than one day off from work was when the company was closed during the national holidays."

"The leading cause of death by overwork is service overtime," says Chikanabu Okamura, a Tokyo lawyer specializing in death by overwork. "The company forces workers to work overtime without pay." Service overtime violates Japanese labor laws but, according to Okamura, "it is very difficult to prove it in court because there are no records."

Okamura explains that corporations also have a major influence on labor laws. "The Nikkeiren [Japan's largest and most powerful business council] has a strong influence on the wage system and working hours. They decide what the policies should be, and send them directly to the government and order all the unions to accept their decisions."

According to Article 32 of the Labor Standards Law, written in 1987, a worker cannot be forced to work more than 40 hours per week. However, the law was weakened by Article 131, paragraph 1, which states that "for the time being" working hours will be determined by a national ordinance, which currently sets the standard at 46 hours a week.

In addition, in 1987 the government deregulated the labor laws, adding a provision permitting "flexible working hours." Decisions about overtime work were thereby shifted to an agreement between the employer and the union, allowing management to require employees to work longer than 40 hours a week as long as the employer and the union agreed. Yet because virtually "all [private sector] unions in Japan are enterprise unions, the company and the union are the same organization," says Kiyotsugu Shitara, of the Tokyo Manager's Union General Secretariat. Thus, the loophole largely cancelled out the expected gains of a shortened legal work week.

According to the National Defense Council for the Victims of Death by Overwork, work-related deaths became an issue when corporations developed a lean work policy in the mid-1970s, after the oil crisis slowed economic growth. As Japan's leading promoter of "stripped down management," Toyota did not allow its branch operations to hire more employees when the amount of work increased. Since the Council opened a death by overwork hotline in 1988, it has received more than 4,000 calls, mainly from wives who fear for their husbands' health.

"Overwork is the policy of companies in Japan; it's a way for them to increase corporate profits using the least amount of personnel as possible," says Mrs. Kanaya. After her husband became debilitated, the company did not replace him, so the remaining employees had to work even harder.

In recent years, say industrial observers, the policy of restructuring, implemented on a national level by the Nikkeiren in the early 1990s, has significantly worsened the health of workers, causing a dramatic rise in work-related stress, mental health problems and suicide. A recent survey conducted by the Yomiuri Newspaper revealed that 56 percent of those who experience stress and basic fatigue in Japan claim work-related causes. In one Tokyo hospital, the number of work-related mental health patients nearly doubled from 702 in 1986 to 1357 in 1995.

Suicide has also become a major issue. The National Police Agency reported a shocking 62 percent increase in work-related suicides between 1997 and 1998, with the number skyrocketing from 4,786 to 7,935. At just one company -- NTT, Japan's largest telecommunications company -- a total of 37 suicides have been reported since August 1997.

"Workers who commit suicide usually suffer work environments that are extremely severe. They typically feel extremely helpless, are overworked and cannot find another job," says freelance journalist Satoshi Kamata, one of Japan's leading experts on industrial health and safety. "Middle age employees in Japan find it very difficult to find jobs at other companies. Furthermore, employees are afraid to talk about their problems for fear of suffering wage or promotion discrimination."

The Japanese government claims that working hours have in fact decreased in recent years to about 1,800 hours a year -- the same levels that exist in the United States and even Europe. But critics say these numbers are based on information supplied by the corporations, and do not include organizations with employees of 30 or less, where 57 percent of the work force is employed. The statistics also don't include service overtime and small group social activities, which are an integral part of the corporate work environment in Japan. According to Okamura "the real average is at least 2,400 hours a year but there have been many cases reported of over 3,000 hours a year." His figures do not include the average daily commute to work, estimated by the Ministry of Transportation to be two hours round trip, often in overcrowded trains.

Rising unemployment has also contributed significantly to work-related health problems and suicide. In 1999, the government reported a record unemployment level of 4.8 percent. However, the rate is likely higher, as the Ministry of Labor requires a person who works for only one hour a week to be considered officially employed.

Obstacles To Justice
After her husband's accident, Mrs. Kanaya applied for worker's compensation in his name. It took the Ministry of Labor four years to accept her claim. When it was finally granted, the award was not enough to cover basic medical expenses. She felt forced to sue. "I also wanted to show the rest of the world how badly my husband was treated by Toyota," she says.

The first obstacle in the case was proving that Toyota had overworked her husband. As is typical in Japanese corporations, managers at Toyota do not fill out time cards. When she asked her husband's colleagues to testify on her behalf, they all refused to speak. The union did nothing to support her case. "After all the requests I sent to them for help I didn't hear from them at all, until I received a letter asking me to support a Toyota Motors-funded candidate running for a seat in the national election," Mrs. Kanaya recalls.

Enterprise unions under the Japanese RENGO union federation are so strongly controlled by management they typically function simply as a mouthpiece for the industrial system. In 1991 RENGO held a joint press conference with the Nikkeiren to announced their close relationship. Under the direct control of top corporate executives, including Hiroshi Okuda, president of Toyota Motors and the director of the Nikkeiren during the time when Mrs. Kanaya's case was active, the Nikkeiren plays a large role in labor policy at Japanese Automotive companies. "The policy of RENGO is to do nothing to protect worker's rights," says says Shuzo Sasaki of the Aichi Labor Institute. When the union federation was formed, the president declared that strikes would not be tolerated.

Mrs. Kanaya's case received national attention, which allowed her to seek grassroots support from others striving to reform working conditions in Japan. At first she received support from the government employees' union in the city where her husband worked, the Hachioji Zenroren Union. She also received support the Hino-city union and other activist unions including the Tokyo Teachers union and the Teikyo University union. "They all made me feel that I was not alone in my struggle. Members of the unions would sit in court with me, to show Toyota that many people were watching." Her supporters also played an important role in a petition drive calling on Toyota to settle the case quickly. But without proof of her husband's working hours, her ability to pursue justice looked grim.  

Then she discovered that some company employees used a security card to enter and leave the office. Her lawyers asked the judge to obtain records from the security company on her husband's use of the card. The records provided striking evidence of how much employees were forced to work -- between 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, including various national holidays.

At the same time, in 1997, the Ministry of Labor's worker's compensation commission concluded that Mr. Kanaya was entitled to worker's compensation because the company deliberately violated labor laws in overworking Mr. Kanaya.

The judge subsequently forced Toyota to settle the case and the company agreed to pay compensation. During the settlement negotiations, however, the company, which often boasts about maintaining cash reserves of over $21 billion, battled over every dollar, resisting compensating Mrs. Kanaya for trivial items such as commuting costs. Her lawyers persisted and, after several years, Mrs. Kanaya finally won, bringing the nation closer to confronting the death by overwork issue.

When asked about the Kanayas' case, Mr. Hirasawa, director of human resources at Tokyo Toyota Motors, admits the company made mistakes during the lawsuit, but claims "the company did nothing wrong in making decisions about working conditions." Despite what his wife claims, Hirasawa told Multinational Monitor, "Mr. Kanaya was not worked that hard everyday."