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63 public teachers died from overwork over 10 years; experts call figure 'tip of iceberg'

The deaths of 63 public school teachers have been certified as "karoshi," or death by overwork, over the 10 years up to academic 2016, the Fund for Local Government Employees' Accident Compensation has disclosed to the Mainichi Shimbun.

Japanese teachers' long hours have become a social problem, but the government has no statistics on teachers' deaths by overwork. The information from the fund accordingly marks the first time concrete numbers of certified cases have been made public. Experts, however, say that even this number is just the tip of the iceberg, as many bereaved families suffer in silence instead of applying for recognition and compensation, and the government should act quickly to assess the situation.

In January this year, the Mainichi Shimbun sent questionnaires to all branch offices of the government employees' accident compensation fund across Japan's 47 prefectures and 20 government-designated cities. The survey focused on deaths of public kindergarten, elementary, junior high and high school teachers or local education board staffers who had succumbed to brain or heart conditions or taken their own lives due to mental health issues stemming from excessive on-the-job labor. It specifically asked the branch offices how many of the fatalities had been certified as work-related accidents over the 10 academic years from 2007 to 2016.

Responses showed that there were 92 applications for recognition of fatalities as work-related deaths, and that 63 cases were certified. In most cases, the process from application to certification took over a year, and the numbers work-related certifications included cases involving educators whose papers had been filed earlier than the 2007 academic year.

Looking at certified cases by location, the Tokyo metropolitan area had the most, at eight individuals, followed by Kanagawa Prefecture with six, Miyagi Prefecture with five and Osaka Prefecture with four. The majority of branches declined to release information about the gender or the circumstances of the teachers and others' deaths, on the grounds of protecting personal information. Still, Tokyo disclosed that the eight cases included five elementary school teachers, two junior high school teachers and one high school teacher between the ages of 23 and 57. Kobe also reported that its single case was a 52-year-old junior high school vice principal.

Since the system pertaining to the government employees' accident fund differs from that of compensation for workers at private institutions, these figures are not included in the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's annual report on "karoshi" cases.

In response to a question from Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan House of Representatives lawmaker Akira Nagatsuma Cabinet concerning how many educators had died of overwork, the administration replied through a Cabinet decision in December 2017 that "a comprehensive grasp of the number of cases is unknown."

According to a triennial survey carried out by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, while the cause of death is not made public, the number of public school teachers who died while employed has hovered around 400 to 500 individuals a year since the 2009 academic year.

In another survey, it was reported that 60 percent of junior high teachers and 30 percent of elementary school teachers worked over the "death by overwork line" of 80 hours of overtime per month in academic 2016.

"Because awareness of working hours in schools has lagged behind, the reality is that it is difficult to even apply for government worker compensation," said Nobumoto Higuchi, a professor of education at Meisei University familiar with the issue of overwork in schools. "If the government is to promote work-style reform for educators, then it needs to first grasp the reality of the deaths caused by overwork -- the worst result of long working hours."

(Japanese original by Takuya Izawa, City News Department)

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