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Boss Dunks Employee's Face In Boiling Hot Pot In Latest Sign That Japan's Toxic Work Culture Needs to Change

Is all that resentment over long hours and abusive bosses finally boiling over?
November 30, 2018, 3:00pm
In Japan, salarymen are overworked to death

A former employee of a Tokyo-based entertainment agency has filed a criminal complaint against his ex-boss for grabbing the back of his head and dunking his face not once, but twice, into a boiling pot of nabe, or hot pot, at an end of the year office party, according to reports in Japanese media.

The incident, which occurred in 2015, made headlines in Japan last week after footage of the assault, recording by two different cell phones, was compiled and posted online by the local Mainichi newspaper. In the video, the unidentified man's boss is off-camera pushing his face down into the pot of boiling water.

It allegedly took months for the burns to heal and left the man with lasting trauma.

“When I see a hot pot, it reminds me of that time and it is painful,” he told local media.

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The video went viral in Japan, where workplace bullying is a serious issue. One study conducted n 2017 found that 30 percent of those surveyed had been victims of workplace harassment and bullying. And more than one-quarter of those interviewed for a separate study said they had fantasized about murdering their boss at least once in their lives.

A lot of this stems from the country's intense—and incredibly hierarchical—office culture. Subordinates in Japan are expected to work insanely long hours (in excess of 80 hours of overtime per month) while also attending booze-soaked after-hours events with their bosses and potential business partners that are seen as vital to the job.

It's gotten so bad that salarymen, as office workers are called in Japan, are literally working themselves to death. Government data cites karoshi, or death by overwork, as the root cause of depression, heart attacks, and suicide by those who work in excess of 100 hours of overtime a month.

In 2014, the national government decided to look into instances of death by overwork and compile an annual whitepaper. The first one, drafted in 2015 and released one year later, found nearly 200 deaths ranging from heart attacks to suicide directly related to overwork and more than 2,000 additional suicides that were somewhat related to workplace difficulties.

But the thing is that while the whitepaper was new, the government has been collecting data on karoshi since the late '80s and, judging by the figures represented here, the number of people dying each year form overwork hasn't changed all that much. And these are only the official numbers. Experts who study death by overwork in Japan say the actual figure is likely significantly higher than the government's estimates.


Watch: Japan's 'Premium Friday' Attempts to Stop Death by Overwork (HBO)


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration has reportedly tried to discourage workplaces from, well, working their employees to death, with a national program called "Premium Friday" that asks companies to let their workers go home at 3 pm on the final Friday of each month. But critics worry that the entire thing may be little more than a publicity stunt instead of the actual change promised by Abe's "work-style reforms." Now, one year later, the Premium Friday experiment is seen as falling short of expectations.

Actual reform, like making so-called "power harassment," or harassment by your bosses, illegal still hasn't happened. The controversial work-style reform law, or hataraki-kata kaikaku, includes language that seems to, on the surface, attempt to limit the number of hours an employee can be asked to work. But in reality, it's so full of loopholes that it will likely make little difference.

And what about outlawing power harassment? It's not even mentioned in the new law. So it's only a matter of time before another office superior, drunk on power, rises to take the mantle of "worst boss ever."