Western media loves to report on the supposed horror stories of manufacturing and corporate environment in Asia. Whenever American workers complain, you can bet there will be someone pointing to an article that describes incredible work weeks in Japan or so-called suicide nets in China. Now, more often than not, these are taken out of context or just conveniently grabbed online, images stripped of any context or a fair assessment.
But sometimes the proof is right there in front of your eyes. Recently, a top executive at Japanese advertising agency Dentsu resigned after the company was blamed for the suicide of a younger worker. The direct link between the death and the company culture was defined as the massive amount of overtime the company expected its employees to work.
Dentsu’s CEO, Tadashi Ishii, said he would step down in January after regulators ruled that Matsuri Takahashi’s suicide was prompted by the excessively long hours she was expected to work.
According to the regulators, Takahashi worked more than 100 hours of overtime in the month prior to her death. The findings came after a raid on Dentsu’s offices which turned up evidence of the overworked employee.
While the suicide made headlines and created a firestorm of harsh PR for Dentsu leading up to the announcement of the CEO’s resignation, this situation is hardly the exception in Japan. In fact, the country is notorious for overworking its younger office professionals.
The cultural norm is something Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is working to change. He wants to implement labor reforms that would shift some of the burden from employees. There are pockets of support for these reforms in Japan, though not nearly enough of it is coming from the businesses in a position to have the most direct impact on the issue.
For many Japanese, this kind of extreme work ethic is as familiar and welcome as America’s reputed Protestant Work Ethic. People work because they feel they should, and they don’t have a real issue with it … even if they’re not terribly happy about it.
That’s the hill those who want to create social change will have to climb. They need to work against the culture that not only accepts but also celebrates the hard work of its younger generations. Proponents of cultural changes are hoping Takahashi’s suicide will spark a national conversation leading to change.