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Dentsu's culture, Japan's corporate climate must change to prevent 'karoshi': attorney

Hiroshi Kawahito (Mainichi)

The suicide of an employee of advertising giant Dentsu Inc. caused by overwork sent shockwaves through the Japanese corporate world. While the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has upheld improvement in labor conditions as one of its causes, cutting back on work hours is of the utmost urgency and must be implemented as soon as possible.

Below is an excerpt from a Mainichi Shimbun interview with Hiroshi Kawahito, secretary-general of the National Defense Council for Victims of Karoshi (death from overwork) and an attorney for the bereaved family of the victim, Matsuri Takahashi. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


As an attorney for Matsuri Takahashi's bereaved family, I believe that her death from overwork was caused by Dentsu Inc.'s unique corporate culture, as well as problems in the Japanese corporate world in general.

When a man who was in his second year as a Dentsu employee killed himself 25 years ago, I was the one who represented the bereaved family. Dentsu's "10 principles," one of which is to "never give up on a task until you reach your goal, even if you die," became a subject of criticism back then, too. But the corporate culture at Dentsu continued to prioritize the accomplishment of business goals over employees' health.

In addition to her standard workload, Takahashi was forced to spend long hours planning an in-house social event. At a meeting following the after-party, she was reprimanded by her boss on her performance as MC and organizer of games. A corporate climate unique to Dentsu pushed Takahashi's stress levels to the extreme.

The male Dentsu employee who took his own life 25 years ago had also been a victim of long work hours and workplace power harassment, and in the year 2000 the Supreme Court acknowledged that his suicide was a work-related death. If Dentsu had been truly remorseful for his death and had corrected the problems in its corporate culture, Takahashi's death obviously could've been prevented. How many people must die before the company makes improvements in its labor conditions? It's extremely regrettable.

The problem of overwork, however, is not unique to Dentsu. At Japanese internet-related businesses, many employees are forced to work late into the night. Because it's a relatively new field, competition is fierce. Takahashi's work involved a never-ending cycle of reviewing, on a weekly basis, what ads she created that week and analyzing what worked and what didn't in order the make changes the following week. The integration of IT into the lives of the public may have made life more convenient for users of the new technology, but for those working in the field, their health and their very lives are being put at risk. There have been cases of karoshi involving drivers, so the problem is not limited to Dentsu.

Because Takahashi's death came at just over a year after the Act to Accelerate Moves for the Prevention of Karoshi was passed, the Japanese public is watching her case very closely. I don't want people's calls to eliminate karoshi and cut back on work hours to fade in a month or two. There should be a constant call for that. It's important that we closely monitor what companies and employers are doing.

The government is now working to reform the way people work in Japan. In a rare move in Japanese history, the prime minister addressed a single woman's death and said," We must never allow this to happen again." My hope is that measures to prevent karoshi constitute the core of the government's labor reforms. Vague slogans, such as "creating a society in which women can shine" do not have the power to truly change things for the better.

Dentsu had been recognized by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare as a model company in its child-rearing measures for employees. That's dark humor, if anything. The ministry must reflect on its shortcomings and institute effective measures to prevent karoshi.

Because there are loopholes in labor-management agreements under Article 36 of the Labor Standards Act that are aimed at restraining long work hours, we cannot expect labor-management negotiations alone to solve all labor-related problems. There needs to be a cap on work hours. Karoshi happens when workers experience an overwhelming lack of sleep. Their psychological and physical health deteriorates, and they suffer impaired judgment. Many cases of karoshi could be prevented if Japan, like the European Union, were to require an 11-hour interval between the end and beginning of a work day to guarantee that workers get enough sleep. Depending on what the government and the Diet decide to do, this could become a reality right away. My hope is the prompt passage of relevant legislation. (Interview by Taketo Hayakawa, City News Department)

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