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Yoroku: Death from overwork still haunts Japan's business culture

If a company sacrifices the lives of its staff for the sake of boosting results, can we truly call that firm a leader in Japan's development? The words of the grieving mother of Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old Dentsu Inc. employee who took her own life last year due to extreme overwork, still give us pause: "There is no job worth more than life."

The notes and letters of some people who have lost family members to death from overwork or overwork induced suicide were collected in a book in 1991, edited by the "Zenkoku karoshi o kangaeru kazoku no kai," or the all-Japan association of families to consider death from overwork. One entry in the volume is by the widow of a 40-year-old man who worked about 370 hours a month and took a grand total of one paid day off in four years. She begged her husband repeatedly to quit, but he did not listen.

"Dear husband, for Japan, what kind of era did you live in?" she wrote. "Japan went this far in dismissing the importance of managing your life, in dismissing the importance of life itself. It is the same kind of era as when Japan was at war. It is a sick era, isn't it?"

Another woman who lost her husband when he was 41 wrote, "I strongly believe that, one day, there will be hard questions asked about the irrationality, the absurdity of the work environment in my husband's era. As a wife, I keep screaming that my husband died from overwork, and I do this to keep my husband alive until such a day comes."

Children, too, made contributions to the book. One elementary school first grader who lost his father to overwork-induced suicide penned a poem called "My dream":

I want to get a PhD when I'm grown up / Then I will build a time machine like the one in Doraemon / I'll ride that time machine back to the day before my dad died / And I'd tell him, "It's no good for you to go to work!"

It has been 25 years since the family association was founded in 1991. Nov. 23 will be Labor Thanksgiving Day in Japan. The title of that book the association published the same year the group formed is "Nihon wa kofuku ka," or "Is Japan happy?" We must ask: Has this country really changed since then? ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)

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