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New Rules Permit Karoshi Investigations in Japan - 2001-11-20

At the urging of hard-driving bosses, dedicated Japanese workers have been known to work themselves literally to death, a phenomenon known as karoshi. New legal standards will make it easier for relatives to win compensation from a dead worker's employer.

The Japanese term karoshi came into use in the 1980's, when a number of deaths were attributed to the high stress and countless hours many Japanese spent working.

While the phenomenon is widely acknowledged in Japan, families find it difficult to make legal claims against an employer when a worker is suspected of having died of overwork. Until now, strict labor regulations have been the main obstacle.

But now, Japan's Labor Ministry plans to issue more flexible guidelines, based on recommendations by a panel of legal and medical experts.

Before, authorities assessing suspected karoshi incidents would look at an employee's working conditions just in the week prior to death. Lawyer Daisuke Sakuma says the most important aspect of the new rules is that they will permit more in-depth investigations. "An employee's working conditions over a six-month period prior to the time of death will be taken into account in determining compensation," Sakuma said.

The panel of experts also urges courts to consider an employee's number of working hours as a factor leading to karoshi.

Mr. Sakuma, the lawyer, says he approves of the new guidelines, but does not think they will eradicate the problem. "Karoshi will not be prevented until more concrete measures arise, including placing limits on overtime hours," Sakuma said.

Starting next month, the new standards will be applied to the nearly eighty karoshi compensation cases now before Japanese courts.