Life squandered on Japan's treadmill

Seven days ago, Keizo Obuchi, the Japanese prime minister, suffered his stroke. It took most of last week for the surprise and panic to subside. It was no secret that Mr Obuchi had a pacemaker, but he didn't appear poorly and his last medical check-up showed no problems. At 62, in a country famous for the longevity of its citizens, he might have expected 20 more years of good health. But as the week wore on, a new question presented itself: not why Mr Obuchi fell ill so suddenly, but how he lasted so long.

The background to his illness came out in a press briefing which described in some detail Mr Obuchi's work regime. In his 20 months as prime minister, he took just three full days off. On weekdays and Saturdays he rose at 6am and started at the office at 8am - much earlier if there was a cabinet meeting. Work occupied him until 11pm, and he had fallen into the habit of waking himself up in the middle of the night to review paperwork and read reports.

He would sleep for only four or five hours, and even on Sundays there were visitors to receive and paperwork to catch up on. His last real holiday - two days of golf and relaxation in the mountain resort of Karuizawa - was eight months ago. In the week before his collapse, he had to deal with a volcanic eruption which displaced 15,000 people in the northern island of Hokkaido, and the defection from his government of a coalition partner. Then, eight days ago, he began to complain of dizziness. He was taken to hospital, where he fell into a coma from which he may never awake.

All prime ministers work hard, of course - Margaret Thatcher famously survived on five hours' sleep a night - and Mr Obuchi's case would not be so surprising if it was just the tragedy of one man in exceptional circumstances. In fact, he is just the most prominent among tens of thousands of Japanese who die, commit suicide or fall sick every year as a direct result of murderously long working hours. The situation has generated a word, which has been adopted for use in English by the UN's International Labour Organisation: karoshi, or death by overwork.

Such tragedies occur all over the world, of course, but not in the same way as in Japan. In Europe and America, victims of fatal work stress are typically at the top end of the scale - managers, executives and dealers whose responsibilities are matched by high rewards. "In Japan, both presidents and production-line workers die from stress," says Hiroshi Kawahito of the National Defence Council for Victims of Karoshi. "That indicates the seriousness of the problem."

No one knows precisely, but Mr Kawahito believes that at least 10,000 Japanese die from karoshi every year, not including those - like Mr Obuchi - whose lives are blighted by serious illness, disability or depression.

The most prominent case in recent years was that of Ichiro Oshima, a 24-year-old employee of Dentsu, the world's biggest advertising agency. Mr Oshima's career as a junior executive was even shorter than Mr Obuchi's tenure as prime minister and, from the account which his family's lawyers gave in court, he worked even harder. In his last month of life, he was regularly in the office until as late as 6am; he slept on average for between two hours and half an hour a night. In 1991, he became clinically depressed and killed himself. Last month, after seven years of legal arguments, the Supreme Court ruled that Dentsu was liable for the young man's death.

Japanese working hours are difficult to calculate because the official government figures derive from figures submitted by employers, who exclude unofficial and unpaid overtime. By this reckoning, average annual working hours have declined from 2,200 in 1988 to 1,980 in 1997 - comparable with Britain and the US. But surveys of workers themselves put the figure at 2,500 hours or, in industries like banking, 3,000 hours a year - the equivalent of 12 hours a day, five days a week.

What is it that makes the Japanese so tolerant of such demands? Partly, it is an ethic of hard work and endurance which begins in childhood with long hours of study for entrance examinations. Partly, it is the intense loyalty which many workers - although fewer than in the past - feel towards their companies. And Japan has few of the cultural institutions which help regulate working hours in other countries.

"In our culture, there are no internal factors that restrict us from working, there is no religious custom that prevents us from working on certain days," says Mr Kawahito. "Our whole society is controlled by a single value - greater efficiency, superior services and more competition."

The irony, of course, is that beyond a certain point, long hours diminish efficiency, over the short term and over a lifetime. The effects are felt, not only by the victims of overwork themselves, but by their families, friends and - in Mr Obuchi's case - the entire country. On the day he was inaugurated, the new prime minister Yoshiro Mori was mobbed by photographers outside his house, where he had just eaten breakfast with his young grandson. As Mr Mori observed, it may be a very long time before he is able to do that again.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map