People Innovation Excellence

The Japan ‘Karoshi’

In this 21st century, who would have thought that an Asian country can be one of a dominance force in economic, industry, education, services, scientific research, etc. That is Japan, after the lose of world war two and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a lot of people already considered that Japan is finished and they can’t bounce back to where they are today. The period of overall real economic growth from the 1960s to the 1980s has been called the Japanese post-war economic miracle: it averaged 7.5 percent in the 1960s and 1970s, and 3.2 percent in the 1980s and early 1990s. Growth slowed in the 1990s during the “Lost Decade” due to after-effects of the Japanese asset price bubble and government policies intended to wring speculative excesses from the stock and real estate markets. Efforts to revive economic growth were unsuccessful and further hampered by the global slowdown in 2000. The economy recovered after 2005; GDP growth for that year was 2.8 percent, surpassing the growth rates of the US and European Union during the same period (“Japan”  Wikipedia.  4 Mei 2017

One of the main reason why the economic in Japan is reaching an impressive stats is because Japan is the home of a lot of giant multinational companies that already successful and have an influence worldwide especially in manufacturing and services sector . As on the record the GDP of Japan are 27.7% composed by industry and manufacturing such as automobile, semiconductors manufacturing, consumer electronics, optoelectronics, etc and 71.1% are composed by the services such as airlines, banking, real estate, traveling, transportation, insurance, communication, etc (“Japan” CIA. 4 Mei 2017

Because of that, companies in Japan are known to have a high standard for their workers and expect that their workers to have a lifetime commitment to work in the same company until they retired. Based on the Geerd Hofstede Cultural Dimension that consists of power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long term orientation  (Browaeys and Price, 2008, p 33-37),  Japan has a low score on individualism , intermediate score in power distance, and high in masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, and long term orientation. Thus this number reflects the relationship between the companies and their workers as a low in individualism means that Japanese society shows many of the characteristics of a collectivistic society: such as putting harmony of group above the expression of individual opinions and people have a strong sense of shame for losing face. Intermediate score on power distance means that Japan is a borderline hierarchical society. Yes, Japanese are always conscious of their hierarchical position in any social setting and act accordingly. A high score (Masculine) on this dimension indicates that the society will be driven by competition, achievement and success, with success being defined by the winner / best in field – a value system that starts in school and continues throughout organizational life. High in uncertainty avoidance means that  the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these is reflected in the score on Uncertainty Avoidance. The last is High in Long Term Orientation means that Japanese see their life as a very short moment in a long history of mankind. From this perspective, some kind of fatalism is not strange to the Japanese. You do your best in your life time and that is all what you can do (“Geert Hofstede Japan” Geert Hofstede. 4 Mei 2017

Based on that data, the truth is hurting as the companies in Japan not just expect the lifetime dedication from their workers but also expect them to be able work overtime with a lot of work need to be done since the first time they stepped in to the companies. The reason behind is actually because the long term orientation itself. Japanese companies want to make sure that their business running not just for a profit today or next couple of months. They really want to make sure that the business is running for generations to come. That’s why they have a high standard of hiring a good competence workers in the beginning and expect them to work hard and show a loyalty in exchange for some degree of job security and benefits, such as housing subsidies, good insurance, the use of recreation facilities, and bonuses and pensions. And also because the working environment in Japanese company was more into family type of thing with a company spirit as their motivation, the upper level manager often and certainly will give their workers a ton of works because they trust the worker to have a high standard and the workers will eventually always willing to accept without even complaining because Japanese as their power distance index showing will likely act accordingly by their position. They ALWAYS thought that the works given is ALWAYS a part of their responsibility, so they need to get it done no matter what by any means possible.  And also collectivism showing that everyone work as a team and everything they do is for the team success, if they failed in certain works given, people will labeled them as a failure for breaking the team “harmony” and Japanese workers really hate to be labeled or losing face (“The Japanese Company in Japanese Cultures” Venture Japan. 8 Mei 2017

But, these thing cost them a lot, because Japan now  facing the crisis of Karoshi which mean the death by working because of the culture (

The more shocking truth is the government already pushed the company to change their regulation about the overtime work but it doesn’t change the fact that the “karoshi” is still one of the main problem Japan face for the past several years. And then there’s  a question arise from the case above. Why don’t they just find another company that benefit them the most? Well in Japan, the cultures is way different than Indonesia. In Japan majority of the company like to get the worker straight out of college and employ them for lifetime. If a worker decided to leave the company that hires him/her, they will likely not be employed by another companies. If they do really decided to leave their previous company, they will also lose all the compensation and benefit that the previous company gave. And from the Hofstede Cultural Dimension we know that Japanese isn’t a risk taker. So instead losing what they have today, they’ll choose to stay with the same company forever because of the certainty. Another reason is the fact that Japanese are afraid of losing their face and labeled as “traitor”. Why traitor? Because Japanese tend to see their respective company as a part of their life. Once they get employed they already know that need to show their loyalty to the company, because the company itself already give a compensation and benefit for them. If they do resign, people tend to of course labeled them as a traitor, So in order to avoid such pressure they will likely to stay with their company whether they like it or not. Another reason is because the high masculinity itself, Japan is very high in masculinity, meaning that they will work hard to achieve success in life. But a lot of Japanese think that they already succeed once they already got a job. So, they work very hard in university to make sure they got the opportunity to work in their dream company. And by that, Japanese will work hard in their respective company to make sure that they don’t waste their effort on the university.

The case of Karoshi in my opinion is not just caused by fatigue of overloading works but furthermore is because of the pressure they bear in and out of the workplace. Pressure such as labeled by others, pressure of high cost living in Japan, pressure of losing everything, etc. The solution at this point is almost impossible to give  because this culture is strongly attached to Japanese people mind and it already becoming their way of their life. For example form the article, a lot of company already forced their employee to just take their work to home, take a vacation, reduce an overtime work hour, etc but it seems to be failed as the karoshi is still high in Japan. So the government need to take a step and create a regulation regarding work-life balance so the employee can be less stressful and eventually decrease the amount of karoshi. Some solution in my opinion are increasing the number of worker so the works can be evenly distributed and decrease a working hour every Friday. Because even with a great number of working hour, the labor productivity in Japan from manufactur and services is decrasing by ± 5% every month (“Productivity Statistics” Japan Productivity Center. 5 Mei 2017 By giving them time to go home early and rest, it will help them to relax more and become less stressful towards their job. In other hand, the least stressful and happier the workers the productivity will certainly increase and solving Japanese crisis of karoshi.


Browaeys & Price. (2008). Understanding Cross-Cultural management. United Kingdom: Pearson

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Written By
Selly Novela, ST, MM
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