At night the streets of Japan are lined with collapsed people, slumped against stairs and drooping by walls. These are not the homeless, but overworked business men and women that have passed out on the streets due to a lack of sleep and too many hours of overtime. The picture is always the same: a curled up figure, a business suit, a laptop bag and deserted train platform.
Allegra Pacheco, a documentary film maker from Costa Rica, has been recording this Japanese cultural phenomenon by ringing in white the sleeping forms of these exhausted workers and recording them. Her purpose is to highlight the issue and make people more aware.
Recent news has emphasised that these slumbering workers are a sign if a much bigger problem. Karoshi, a word meaning ‘death by overwork’ in Japanese, has been a hot topic lately as two workers in their early twenties have committed suicide citing overwork as the cause. These deaths are not always workers taking their own lives, but also come in the form of stress induced heart attacks and strokes.
The focus of the world media is now very much on the Japanese culture of overwork, but the problem stems back far further than recent years. Thomas Looser, an expert on Japanese culture at NYU, believes that the problem first emerged after World War II, when the country switched focus from its military to its economy. Instead of seeing the army as their family, the people were led to see their company as their family and would strive to do everything to support them. Initially this tactic worked with Japan seeing an ‘economic miracle’ of growth in the 60s to the 80s, but with deaths due to Karoshi rising. This period however did not last and Japan experienced several crashes in the 90s. The culture of working extreme levels of overtime has become worse though, as their are fewer jobs and white collar workers become more replaceable.
Japan has now put in measures to cap monthly overtime to 100 hours, but this is still seen by many as a dangerously high level. Asian and Middle Eastern Studies applicants should consider the impact of cultural values on the concepts of health, self worth and work. Students applying to study History should examine how past events and ideals impact on the present on the present day.
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