Death by Overwork Casts Shadow Over Tokyo Olympics Stadium

  • Construction worker commits suicide after excessive overtime
  • Incident yet another example of overwork-related death

Ongoing construction at Japan's National Stadium in April 2017.

Photographer: AFP via Getty Images

Japan’s unforgiving work culture has claimed another life, this time at the new Tokyo stadium for the 2020 Summer Olympics. 

A 23-year-old worker killed himself after disappearing from the work site in March, according to his lawyer and employer, Sanshin Corp. He had logged more than 190 hours of overtime in February at the construction company, a builder of foundations for large structures and subcontractor for Taisei Corp. The Tokyo Labor Bureau confirmed the suicide was linked to overwork, the Nikkei newspaper reported.

“Karoshi,” or death-by-overwork, is a serious social issue in Japan, with little evidence of improvement since the term first came into use in the 1970s. The report of the construction worker’s demise emerged just a week after broadcaster NHK disclosed that the death of a 31-year-old reporter in 2013 was also due to overwork. She succumbed to congestive heart failure after logging 159 hours of overtime a month. The suicide of a 24-year-old Dentsu Inc. employee last year was also ruled as karoshi.

“The grief we feel over not being able to see the smile on our son’s face again, will never go away,” the worker’s parents said in a statement released by his lawyer, Hiroshi Kawahito. “We want to make sure that this kind of tragedy will never happen again, and that the utmost effort will be made to improve working conditions for employees.”

Ichiro Sekiwa, a Sanshin executive, told Bloomberg that the company may not have had enough workers when construction for the Olympic stadium’s foundation was at a peak last year. Taisei is taking the incident seriously, and is working with its subcontractors to prevent further cases of excessive labor, the company said in an emailed statement.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to reform the country’s work culture and reduce long working times that can lead to illness and death. A government panel last year called for any employee’s overtime to be kept under 100 hours in any single month, but labor advocates and economists said the proposals don’t go far enough, and may even legitimize karoshi and worsen the situation.

“It is our sincere hope that the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will be opened safely,” the parents said in the statement.

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