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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Fatal attraction

A wealthier Asia should ease up on conditions that cause karoshi

THE JAPANESE HAVE A term for it -- karoshi, or death from overwork. But for a long time, Japan's powerful bureaucrats barely acknowledged its existence, knowing full well that hard work was a key ingredient in the nation's post-war economic success. In recent years, Japanese attitudes toward extreme overwork have been changing. People are less prepared to accept a father or son being treated as a corporate kamikaze pilot.

In a landmark decision last year, a Japanese court ruled that suicide could be an instance of karoshi (joining heart failure and cerebral hemorrhage, recognized since 1988). The parents of Oshima Ichiro, a 24-year-old advertising executive who had worked non-stop for months, successfully sued his employer for compensation after their son took his own life. Appeal hearings finished recently, and 200 similar cases are going through the courts.

Toiling selflessly for the corporation has long been a romantic notion in Japanese culture. It exemplifies perseverance in the face of difficult odds and devotion to the cause -- cardinal virtues under the Japanese work ethic. They have helped salarymen transform their country into an economic superpower. Not just lunch, but holidays too, were for wimps. The payback was lifetime employment -- if you didn't die of heart failure along the way.

But in the downturn that followed the bursting of the "bubble economy" in the late 1980s, karoshi dropped from the headlines. For one thing, recession meant less work to do. Yet workaholic attitudes persisted. Recognizing that the real killer is overtime, the government has urged employers to reduce the hours they require staff to work. Some corporations have introduced "no-overtime" days.

But social pressures also contribute to karoshi. Most victims do not even claim for overtime. Many feel duty-bound to socialize into the wee hours on their company's behalf. Or they stay in the office after finishing their work, preferring not to leave before their boss or even their peers. If they do, they apologize, with the expression O saki ni, or "Sorry to go home before you." For Oshima, the endless treadmill of long hours and heavy expectations became unbearable.

Workaholism is hardly a Japanese monopoly. It is prevalent, among other places, throughout eastern Asia, where it is a prime spur to economic advance. But those who have toiled should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. For too many Asian employees, the pressures of work have blotted out the wider pleasures and responsibilities of life. When a society treasures hard toil to the point of illness or even death, the work ethic becomes perverted and counter-productive. Greater affluence means the region can afford to strike a healthier balance between work and play.

In the land of karoshi itself, hotlines are being set up to counsel the relatives of victims. Court rulings, too, are helping foster the notion that karoshi is a serious social problem. And the younger generation -- Oshima's peers -- is increasingly demanding appropriate rewards for its toil. All this is a necessary precursor of real solutions. To retain its competitiveness, Asia must always maintain its traditions of hard work. But fatal excesses cannot possibly do any society any good.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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