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Hope found in lives lost : karoshi and the pursuit of worker rights in Japan

Japanese social order emphasizes a superior’s responsibility for their subordinates’ well-being. This traditional “right to benevolence” is a wellspring of hope for workers. This paper describes how, in the wake of changes in employment practices since the mid-1970s, citizens’ groups and labor lawyers creatively combined advances in medicine and legal knowledge with this right to benevolence in lawsuits seeking compensation for injuries caused by overwork. The social movement against karōshi (death due to overwork) that arose from these suits first sought workers’ compensation system reforms. Later, they won legislative remedies. Rulings in Japanese courts, including the Supreme Court, affirmed employers’ legal responsibility for worker well-being to include care for accumulated fatigue and mental health. Buoyed by these successes, activists and victims’ families hopes of preventing karoshi reached new heights with the June 2014 passage of the Karoshi Prevention Countermeasures Promotion Law (Karōshi tō bōshi taisaku suishin-hō). Karoshi compensation victories, administrative rule changes, and legislative reforms raised public awareness of overwork and exploitative management practices. Nevertheless, we must conclude that, although karoshi legislation gives hope for a legal regime of employee care rights, the current law is weak and remediation only addresses the worst cases. Moreover, participation in the legislative process risks limiting the movement’s future influence.


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Contemporary Japan


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