A young Japanese political reporter died of “karoshi,” a Japanese term which literally means “death from overwork” after logging more than 159 hours of overtime in a single month, Japanese broadcaster NHK announced on Wednesday, Oct. 4.
A colleague found Miwa Sado collapsed in her bed clutching a cellphone in her hand after a monthlong work spree covering a regional and a national election, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported. The 31-year-old rarely complained, her parents said, but seemed increasingly anxious in the month leading up to her death.
“I am too busy and stressed out and think about quitting my job at least once a day,” Sado wrote in an email to her father one month before death. “But I guess I have to hang on.”
Although Sado died in July 2013, her employer NHK did not make the cause of the death public until Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. According to her parents, NHK said that they were working to address the issue of overwork, but an employee told them privately that the cause of Sado’s death was never made public to all of the employees. That’s when the parents pressed the broadcaster to make the public announcement.
“NHK should proceed with the reform program after fully informing all its staff of our daughter’s death and doing serious soul-searching,” her father said. “The reforms will never be complete unless they are based on the deep remorse over the death of an employee.”
Karoshi, or death from overwork, has been a prominent issue in Japan for decades. The term first emerged in the 1980s, but little has been done to address it.
Sado logged 159 hours and 37 minutes in overtime in June and 146 hours and 57 minutes in May, according to the Shibuya Labor Standard Inspection Office. That’s well above the national guidelines of 100 hours of overtime per month. A standard workweek in Japan is 40 hours.
“In Japanese society, working a long time continues to be a virtue,” Kotaro Tamura, an Asia fellow at the Milken Institute.
The public was outraged earlier this year when advertising agency Dentsu Inc. paid a small $4,400 fine after a court ruled that it had its employees working illegal amounts of overtime. Dentsu employee Matsuri Takahashi, 24, committed suicide in 2015 by jumping off the roof of employee housing. Japan’s labor ministry ruled that Takahashi died of karoshi.
The guidelines, though clear, did not help Takahashi or Sado. According to Tamura, real change will come around when both the laws and the culture are in sync.
“The corporate law is not good enough,” Tamura said. “At a glance, our country looks like a very good country. But behind the scenes, this is happening.”
NHK is promising reforms and aired a two-minute segment on its primetime broadcast about Sado’s death.
“I can’t even imagine how her parents have been feeling since they lost their daughter at the young age of 31,” Ryoichi Ueda, chairman of NHK, said. “We’ll continue to reform our organization, and I hope they will help us.”