On Tuesday, a Japanese court decided that the family of a 24-year-old man who killed himself after being forced to work 190 overtime hours a month was due 51.7 million yen ($317,000) in damages. The man, who isn't named in media reports, started working for the Sun Challenge steakhouse chain in 2007 and worked his way up to manager in 2009 while suffering abuse at the hands of his superiors. He hung himself in 2010, which judge Akira Yamada ruled was at least partially the fault of his employer and two fellow employees."With only one holiday given to him every several months, the psychological load of prolonged work and power harassment caused his mental disorder", the judge wrote.
Although Karojisatsu, which translates to "suicide from overwork", has been a phenomenon in Japan for decades, this is the first time that an employer has been considered legally culpable for causing an employee's mental collapse without a court also claiming the worker was negligent for agreeing to work an insane schedule. A lawyer for the deceased man's family called it "epoch making", and it certainly could be a watershed moment that could lead to a revamping of the country's famously workaholic culture.
When a 29-year-old man working for Japan's largest newspaper company died from a stroke in 1969, it was referred to as "occupational sudden death". Ultimately, 18 similar cases in the newspaper industry were reported over the next decade, and hundreds of others were recorded, particularly among corporate types. The slew of strokes and heart attacks birthed the term karoshi, or "death by overwork", and the National Defense Council set up a karoshi hotline in 1988.
By then, suicide from overwork had become a social issue in Japan. Not only were people working so hard that their bodies gave out, they were feeling so trapped by excessive hours or unrealistic sales goals that they felt death was their only escape. Matters only got worse after Japan's bubble economy burst around 1991, because employers began using fewer people to accomplish the same amount of work.
Although a 2007 report showed that Japanese workers were working fewer hours than their American counterparts, the Economist claimed the figures were misleading thanks to the rather self-explanatory Japanese concept of "free overtime". "During the past 20 years of economic doldrums, many companies have replaced full-time workers with part-time ones", wrote the Economist. "Regular staff who remain benefit from lifetime employment but feel obliged to work extra hours lest their positions be made temporary".
It's encouraging that the number of families receiving compensation for victims of Karoshi and Karojisatsu seems to be on the rise since 1997. This latest case, though, is an important one, because the ruling did not specify that the victim was partially to blame for working around the clock – it's a sign of recognition that in many employer-employee relationships, if your boss asks you to come in on Saturday or stay an extra couple hours, you don't have the leverage to say no. With any luck, it'll put a dent in a culture of conforming to unhealthy work habits.
"This is a ruling that encourages workers suffering from prolonged work and power harassment", the family's lawyer told reporters.
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.