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
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
News
Not quite what they were expecting
news

When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum