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Suicide Surge Triggered by Overwork in Japan (Oral Presentation Text)

"Prevention of Suicide" Subsection of SAFE COMM-10
(May 21-23, 2001 Anchorage, Alaska)
Secretary General, National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi
Hiroshi Kawahito Attorney at Law
Lecturer, Faculty of Literature and Arts, University of Tokyo


The number of deaths caused by suicide is sharply increasing in Japan. In 1998 and 1999, the suicide rate (number of suicides per 100,000 people) exceeded 25 and the total number of suicides surpassed 30,000. Particularly noticeable are suicides caused by overwork and stress among middle-aged workers in their 40s and 50s. This is now a serious social problem that demands a thorough analysis of the cause, and requires preventive measures to be taken.


Table 1 shows the trend in suicide deaths in postwar Japan. The total number, which remained around 20,000 until recently, has sharply increased in the last few years. Statistics by the National Police Agency show that there were 32,863 suicide deaths in 1998 surpassing 30,000 for the first time in history. The figure for 1999 was even worse, with a record-breaking 33,048.

(Note: The statistical figure for the year 2000 will be announced in June or July 2001.)

The increase is particularly noticeable among people in their 50s. The number of suicide deaths of those in their 50s in 1999 was 8,288, accounting for 25.1% of the total. This is an increase of over 1.5 times, from 5,422 in 1997. During the same period, suicide deaths of those in their 40s, also categorized as the middle age group, increased by 1.3 times.

Every year the National Police Agency classifies suicides by cause and motive of death. In 1980, 919 people died of work-related problems which accounted for 4.4% of all suicide deaths that year. This number increased to 1,624 in 1999, or 5.5% of the total. Other categories of causes and motives for 1999 given by the National Police Agency include problems related to "health" (accounting for 49.4% of all deaths), "economics and life" (20.4%), "family" (8.5%), "male-female relationships" (2.5%) and "school" (0.7%).

Suicides triggered by "health problems" include those of people suffering from mental disorders caused by overwork and occupational stress who were treated by psychiatrists. Suicides caused by "economic and life-related problems" include cases where workers had lost their jobs due to corporate restructuring.

Considering these factors, I estimate that of all suicide deaths in 1999, several thousand at least and over 10,000 at most, died because of occupational fatigue and stress. This number includes cases with multiple and sometimes conflicting causes.

Calls on suicide received by the Karoshi Hotline

I started the Karoshi Hotline in June 1988 together with lawyers, doctors and experts in the field of industrial accidents and occupational diseases. The term karoshi means death due to occupational overwork and stress. The major purpose of the Hotline is to provide support to the families of the deceased through advice on how to get compensation for work-related accidents and other more general financial compensation.

The Hotline received 5,777 calls between June 1988 and June 2000. Of these, 3,765 were related to deaths and diseases considered to have occupational causes. Of those 3,765 calls, more than two-thirds(or 2,530 calls) reported death. The major identifiable causes of death included sub-arachnoid hemorrhage and myocardial infarction.

The number of calls for consultation for suicides has sharply increased in the past few years. There were 59 such calls in the eight years between 1988 and 1995, but the number increased to 390 in the five years between 1996 and 2000.

What is occupational overwork and stress?

Some cases handled by the Karoshi Hotline within the past few years are listed in Table 2. The causes of occupational overwork and stress evident in these cases can be subdivided into five categories.

The first is all-night, late-night or holiday work, both long and excessive. During the long-term recession after the collapse of the bubble economy, many companies cut back on the number of employees. The total amount of work, however, did not decrease, forcing each employee to work harder. Many workers are now forced to work long hours, work until midnight or work on their holidays. One psychiatrist analyzed these cases and reported that excessive and continuous work triggered fatigue depression that led to suicide.

The second category is mental stress or the burden caused by excessive occupational responsibility. Each employee is exposed to greater mental stress due to the reduction in the number of personnel. At one pharmaceutical company, a manager in charge of quality control suddenly became ill. His successor had no experience in that field and started working under extreme mental pressure. Eventually he became mentally ill and committed suicide. At another company, one employee, also working in the quality control sector, became responsible for all claims from users. This worker was pushed beyond the breaking point, and died.

The third category is stress accumulated due to frustration at not being able to achieve the unrealistic goals set by the company. Even in economic recession when products or services don't sell, Japanese companies demand excessive sales efforts from their employees and tell them to achieve better results. Employees work harder and harder, but sales don't increase and there is very little success. This increases the psychological burden placed on the employees at work.

The fourth category is abuse of human rights, including forced resignation, dismissal and bullying. For example, an employee who has worked for a company for many years and believes that he is a loyal contributor may suddenly be asked to retire or be ordered to quit because of the need for staff cutbacks. Such action by a company would drive many a dedicated employee to despair. Japanese companies often resort to bullying and harassment of middle-aged employees to force them to "voluntarily" resign. Once method used by companies is to force an employee to sit at a desk in a basement without any work to do. Such inhuman labor policies are rampant in Japanese companies.

The fifth and final category is the suffering of middle management they are like meat within the sandwich. These managers, who are responsible for laying off workers, come between the corporate restructuring policy and the workers. In one case, a manager responsible for persuading workers to retire had to bear the brunt of fierce protests from the targeted workers, suffered from emotional pain, and committed suicide.

When a worker commits suicide, his personality and family background often comes into question. Nevertheless, the cases handled by the Karoshi Hotline cannot be explained without taking occupational overwork and stress into consideration. If we are to generalize the personality of those committing suicide, they are not at all eccentric or "crazy" people; they are the ordinary, dedicated individuals whom you see in everyday Japanese society. In that sense, Japan has reached the day where ordinary workers are being driven to take their own lives.

Measures to prevent suicide

I think that there are three important measures to curb the trend of rising suicides by workers.

NUMBER ONE is adequate medical support and treatment.

Surveys on worker suicide show that most people commit suicide after suffering from a certain degree of mental disorder such as depression. Committing suicide is one aspect of this disease. In only 21% of the cases received by the Karoshi Hotline had the subject visited a psychiatrist or hospital before committing suicide. This is due to the social stigma attached to psychiatric treatment and the ignorance of mental disorder in Japanese society. Companies, families and society as a whole should work to improve the level of medical support and treatment of workers' diseases of the mind.

NUMBER TWO is to reduce working hours and excessive work.

Postwar Japan established a unique system of long working hours and became an economic superpower. In the late 1980s people started to question long working hours (which could cause karoshi or death from overwork) and there were greater efforts to shorten working hours. Unfortunately, the long, drawn-out post-bubble recession continued on in the 1990s and people seemed to forget about the need to reduce working hours. In fact, long and hard work came back in fashion as a way for Japan to climb out of the recession and to win back global economic clout.

Although business recovery is important, companies should not achieve it through the sacrifice of the lives and health of its workers. Efforts to reduce working hours and late-night or holiday work are indispensable in preventing workers' suicide. Harassing, bullying and other labor policies that abuse workers' human rights must be stopped.

NUMBER THREE is to improve the employment safety net.

As shown in Table 3, the unemployment rate and suicide rate tend to correlate in Japan. The number of suicide deaths increase for two reasons: firstly, people start pushing themselves too hard at work out of fear that they may lose their jobs; secondly when people lose their jobs, they may lose hope and commit suicide.

The stronger link between unemployment and suicide in Japan is due to its poor safety net in employment. This is out of step with Japan's economic power. One example is its meager unemployment insurance system. When an employee working for a company for well over 20 years is laid off through corporate restructuring, that person can receive unemployment insurance for less than a year (about 300 days). In France, on the other hand, a worker can receive insurance up to five years.

Vocational training systems to prepare for job transfer are totally inadequate in Japan. Many unemployed middle-aged workers hope to get into public vocational school where the tuition is free, but the capacity of these schools is quite limited. In Tokyo only one out of three or more applicants can get into these schools.

Analysis by a major Japanese newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, revealed that compared with figures for 1980, the national government is spending less than half for each jobless person in fiscal year 2001.

Better support for the unemployed by Japanese society as a whole is crucial from the viewpoint of preventing suicide.

** Dr. Sorimachi and his colleague have compared Japan and Sweden in terms of the relationship between suicide rate and unemployment rate and will present a report at this symposium.


The sharp increase in suicide from overwork is largely due to labor and social policies unique to Japan. We cannot deny, however, that other countries are facing a similar risk. I hope that through this presentation participants from around the world pay more attention to this phenomenon and take back a message to protect the lives and health of workers.

Statistics and References on the Karoshi Hotline website
National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi, Karoshi, Madosha, 1991.

Table 1:Trend in suicide deaths in postwar Japan

Period: 1949 - 1999
Source: "Number of suicides" in 'Outline of suicide' by the National Police Agency

Table 2: Some cases received by Karoshi Hotline within the past three years
<Not mentioned in the original but all the cases involved men>

As of May 14, 2001 Received by Karoshi Hotline's national network

Age category Industry & job category Outline
30s Manufacture /programmer Refused to go to the office due to long working hours and work-related troubles. He developed a gastric ulcer and attempted suicide 6 months ago.
20s Manufacture / engineer Was forced to deal with accidents and other troubles alone and committed suicide at a hotel when he was on a business trip. He could not go home because of long working hours and stayed at an apartment owned by the company
20s Manufacture / engineer Worked overnight until around 11:00pm everyday. Worked on many Saturdays and Sundays. He left a suicide note.
40s Telecommunications / middle management Worked on holidays when he was on a temporary dispatch without his family. Work load increased after the PC was introduced. He left a suicide note. Another colleague of his was also suffering from a nervous breakdown.
40s Telecommunications / middle management Committed suicide at his company's rest room. He showed symptoms of depression and his wife consulted his boss. The boss was against his seeing a doctor.
50s Manufacture / sales He was farmed out from a factory to a sales office. He was not suited to the work there and he became neurotic. On his way back from the head office, to make a report during the business hours, he committed suicide. The company rejected his petition for a leave.
50s Service / middle management He was sandwiched between the corporate restructuring policy and the workers and committed suicide.
20s Government worker Worked long and excessive, even on New Year holidays, and committed suicide.
20s Manufacture / general worker Worked in the personnel division. Faced "troubles" related to corporate restructuring.
30s Wholesale / middle management Troubles related to the company going bankrupt. Left a note and committed suicide.
40s Manufature / middle management To solve a trouble occurring a month earlier he continued to work overtime and on holidays. Completely lost his appetite <Literally " He couldn't swallow his meals">.
40s Media / middle management Got business calls at home and had no time to relax.

Table 3: Trends in suicide rate and unemployment rate

Suicide rate: Number of suicide per 100,000 population
Calculation method: Suicide rate calculated based on data from the National Police Agency ("Outline of suicide") and the Statistics Bureau of the Management and Coordination Agency ("Population estimate as of October 1 every year") for years from 1949 to 1999.

Unemployment rate (ratio of wholly unemployed ):Data from the Statistics Bureau of the Management and Coordination Agency ("Statistics on labor force review" 1955 - 1999)

The office of the KAROSHI Hotline National Network
The office of the National Defence Counsel for Victims of KAROSHI
Kawahito Law Office
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TEL:03-3813-6999 FAX:03-3813-6902