Two years ago, Jun Ishii was at the peak of his career at Mitsui & Co. As one of Mitsui's only speakers of Russian, the factory-automation specialist shouldered the bulk of the burgeoning Russian business for one of Japan's largest trading houses. Over the previous year, he had made 10 Russian trips totaling 115 days. When he arrived home in Tokyo from one grueling journey, Mitsui immediately sent him out to guide four Russian clients on a factory tour near Nagoya. But while taking a shower in his hotel room, Ishii, who was 47, died of a heart attack.
In mid-July, his widow, Sachiko, scored a counterblow on behalf of Japan's slaving salaried workers. After documenting the final days of Ishii's life--the travel and the stress--Tokyo labor regulators ruled that overwork killed her husband, and the government will pay her an annual worker's compensation. "Finally, the government recognizes that white-collar workers can die of karoshi," says Kazuhiro Nakanishi, the family's lawyer. "I expect to see more people come forward now." Mitsui cooperated fully with the government's investigation and made a onetime payment of $240,000, Ishii's lawyer says.
Ishii's plight is common in Japan. Karoshi--sudden death by a heart attack or stroke triggered by overwork--claims some 10,000 Japanese each year, estimates Hiroshi Kawahito, a lawyer who founded the National Defense Council for Victims of Karoshi four years ago. But the Labor Ministry compensates only one or two dozen families for karoshi out of about 700 that apply each year. And through a legal quirk, death from overwork has been considered to be exclusively a blue-collar phenomenon.
IRRITABLE AND ILL. With the Ishii case, regulators have expanded karoshi compensation to Japan's legions of salaried workers. The impact is rippling through boardrooms, and a handful of companies are already trying to ease the pressure. This year, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. is extending vacations from 16 to 23 days a year and requiring workers to take all of it. Other companies are starting to track employees' emotional health. A branch of telephone giant Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. found that stress was making some workers irritable and ill. So, to improve the emotional health of its employees, the company initiated periods of silent meditation.
In the Ishii case, not only did Mitsui cooperate and pay compensation but it is also taking steps to prevent a similar occurrence. From now on, general managers will be assessed as to how well they set overtime hours, keep subordinates healthy, and encourage workers to take vacations. But Mitsui doesn't want to set limits on working hours. "We're not a company of children," says Hidemi Mori, a Mitsui spokesman.
Though the Ishii case will bring some improvement in working conditions for office workers, karoshi is still a cloudy issue. It's often difficult to determine if karoshi is caused by work demands, or private, late-night socializing that may be work-related. Some experts also blame a lack of exercise and the fattier modern diet, not just stress. Whatever the cause, more families are simply no longer willing to put up with the myth of the Japanese corporate samurai.