“When women die from overwork, they become a news story.”
In July of 2013, Miwa Sado, a 31 year old journalist from Tokyo, Japan, died from congestive heart failure.
Sado covered two elections in the summer of 2013, the Tokyo Assembly election, as well as the upper-house election. According to the Asahi Shimbun, her work included interviews with candidates and campaign staffs, recording campaign speeches, and attending meetings that predicted the result of an election.
Over the course of covering two elections, she spent most days working past midnight. In the month leading up to her death, she only took two days off.
Sado died three days after the second election.
Japan’s Labor Standards Inspection Office attributed her death to karoshi — or death from overwork — in 2014. However, her employer, Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK didn’t acknowledge it until just last week.
Karoshi, or death from overwork, became widely known in Japan in the late 1980s. However, a long-hours culture is deeply rooted in many companies across various industries.
The problem is so bad that there's a “karoshi line”— 100 hours in a month or an average of 80 hours in two to six month period before death — which is used as a threshold to determine whether death due to overwork will be recognized.
A close friend of Sado found her dead in her bed, still holding her cellphone.
Japan’s Labor Standards Inspection Office, based on a self-reported work schedule, said that she exceeded 159 hours at work in the month leading up to her death.
However, Sado's family says otherwise. The Asahi Shimbun reported that the family searched for records of Sado's computer, cellphone and taxi tickets, and say that there's a possibility that she worked as many as 209 hours.
According to the Asahi Shimbun, Sado's parents said their daughter mentioned her work when they sent an e-mail on her birthday in June 2013.
Sado replied to their e-mail, “[I'm] busy and stressed out; I think about wanting to quit once a day. But I just need to hang in there.”
“It breaks my heart when I think that she might've wanted to call me”, Sado's mother told the Asahi Shimbun.
NHK said that they “refrained from making an announcement” for three years out of respect for her family.
However, since this summer, Sado's parents demanded the broadcaster to take measures to prevent their daughter's death from “being forgotten,” when they learned that other employees were not aware that overwork death had occurred within the company.
In recent years, Japanese media have reported on deaths due to overwork, and NHK also tackled issues involving the promotion of work style reforms.
It was later revealed this Tuesday that the employer didn't make an official report about Sado's death to the managing committee until this October; the committee holds the authority to supervise the broadcaster's executives.
Toru Yamanaka / AFP / Getty Images
The announcement about Sado’s death also reminded many people in Japan about the suicide of a young woman named Matsuri Takahashi at an advertising agency last year.
The 24-year-old jumped from an employee dormitory after her workload at Dentsu, Inc., increased sharply. A labor inspection office confirmed she logged 105 hours of overtime in the month before her depression.
She had written about her exhaustion on Twitter in the days leading up to her death. “I have lost all my emotions, except for a desire to sleep,” she wrote. “Once again, it's been decided that I have to work on weekends too. I seriously want to die.”
Tweets about her boss' words such as “your sleepy face during meetings shows you are incapable of managing the work,” revealed that she also suffered from power and sexual harassment.
“There's no job more important than your life. My daughter's death is not a performance. It's not a fiction. It's something that happened in reality,” her mother, Yukimi Takahashi, pictured above, said at a symposium on measures to prevent death from overwork in November.
This incident at one of the biggest and prestigious companiesy was widely reported, which led to the resignation of Dentsu Inc.'s president and a rare court trial (Dentsu has been fined 500,000 yen); it sparked and outcry and demands for the government and companies to rethink about the working culture in Japan.
Kyodo Kyodo / Reuters
A female journalist who, in the past, logged more than 100 hours of overwork at a newspaper told BuzzFeed Japan, “you could feel that our sense of time was out of tune with society.”
“No lines were drawn between private and work life, and that's considered good. There was, in a sense, a belief that being hardworking equals the amount of time you work.”
She never thought about asking anyone for help, because she felt that complaining about the situation “wouldn't change anything.”
In the case of young employees, low income, a value that considers patience as the greatest virtue, or an urban legend about how transferring jobs before spending three years at a company becomes a disadvantage — are some of the many reasons they do not run away.
Another former reporter at a magazine company said that there were times when she felt she “could just die.” She worked overtime as long as 150 hours.
“There was an atmosphere that people who sought for work life balance should just go somewhere else. It was their fault that they couldn't enjoy work,” she said.
“I didn't quit [for a while] because I would've been frustrated if people thought of me that way. On my days off, I brought my work back home and did interviews as well. Days passed by without being able to rest.”
Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP / Getty Images