Suicide due to Overwork

A lot of people know that Japan is in the top five countries with the highest suicide rates. Suicide is a sad thing, but it occurs daily in Japan. Whether the person is male or female, young or old, rich or poor, just a few of these suicides will ever be covered by the mass media. But on December 25, 2015, there was a suicide so unique that it ‘shook Japan’s earth.’ A suicide that was so sad that it stirred the hearts of the Japanese. This suicide victim was a young lady named Matsuri Takahashi. 

(As a side note: back in November 2018, I had promised you that I would write a blog about my research paper. I spent many months writing it. I passed my research paper, I have graduated, and I am already back in my home country. I will quote some parts of my research paper here. You can read my Research Paper here)

The first time I heard about her story, I was still in the Netherlands. I was already accepted by APU, and I was in the process of preparing myself for my departure to Japan. Her story had reached the other side of the world. It was translated and discussed on the internet, and I was intrigued by it. The topic, suicide, has always been of interest to me, and I always been fascinated by its concept. I always try to understand how someone can reach such a point in life to choose not to be amongst us anymore. 

As a Muslim, it is difficult to grasp the concept of suicide, as we believe that God has given us the most precious gift ever, which is to be, to exist, and to be alive. Therefore, making an end to one’s life, which was given to us, is tough to understand. When I read about Matsuri Takahashi’s story, I wondered if I shouldn’t look into the case and write my thesis on this. In the initial stage, my topic was to investigate the cultural differences between the Dutch and Japanese culture, but my curiosity was too big to leave this case uninvestigated. 

The story

“Matsuri Takahashi was born in 1991. She was born in Hiroshima Prefecture, but she grew up in Shizuoka Prefecture. Matsuri Takahashi entered Tokyo University (from here on referred to as Tōdai) as a scholarship student exempted from tuition fees. As reported by Tōdai Shimbun (May 16, 2017), the Tōdai newspaper, many students that join the Tokyo University come from wealthy families. Matsuri Takahashi, however, was not from a wealthy family. She was economically disadvantaged, but it did not stop her from trying to get into Tōdai. She was encouraged by her teachers from her high school (Midoraka High School in Shizuoka
Prefecture).

In April 2015, right after Matsuri Takahashi graduated from Tokyo University, she started her job at Dentsu Inc. As reported by Japan Today (October 24, 2016), when entering Dentsu Inc. as a new employee, they undergo training of, approximately six months. Here, Matsuri Takahashi quickly became one of the top trainees as she earned her respect within the company. However, after finishing the training, reality hit her hard. She became a regular employee, and the expectations of her superiors were high, the working days were long, and there was much stress on the work floor.

The cause of the stress was due to the understaffing of the Internet Advertising department, where she was a member of, Dentsu Inc. was embarrassed with some scandals at that time and, and as a result, they had to reorganise at the expense of their employees. For Matsuri Takashi, this meant much overwork. She clocked 105 hours of overwork (regular hours + 105 hours).

In order to deal with stress, she needed a platform to vent her anger and frustrations. This was Twitter. She would use Twitter to express her anger and frustrations about the company and the long overwork hours. Here she was detailed, honest, and vocal about the way the company would treat workers here. She expressed issues such as power harassment, bullying, overwork, and sexual harassment.

But on 25th of December, 2015, Yukimi Takahashi, the mother of Matsuri Takahashi, received an email from Matsuri Takahashi (Japan Today, 2016). In that email, Matsuri Takahashi wrote:

Work is unbearable. Life is unbearable. Thank you for everything.

Her mother read the email, and she understood its meaning. She immediately ran to the
phone and called Matsuri. Matsuri picked up the phone, and her mother told her that death was not the answer. The mother pleaded to her daughter to leave the company. Matsuri Takahashi replied: ‘Okay, mother.’ Unfortunately, this plea was not enough to dissuade her from killing herself” (Ennahachi, 2019). 

Matsuri Takahashi passed away at the age of 24

My research

Obviously, my research is quite lengthy (Edit: my research paper can be found here; The Death That Shook Japan’s Earth: A Case Study of Matsuri Takahashi(高橋まつり)) , so I will try to condense it for you. My research question was: “What would be the role of SNS in making Matsuri Takahashi’s case unique enough to lead to the first White Paper in 2016?” In other words, I was curious about how her case was unique and why. Because her death did not only stir the hearts of the Japanese, but it even affected politics.

In Japan, death due to overwork has a name. It is called Karōshi (過労死)But in my research, I found that this term was not very applicable to Matsuri’s case. Karōshi is a medical term used since the 80s when in the economic boom in Japan, a lot of salarymen in their 40s started to die at work. They had spent so much time at work without any rest they would die of heart attacks or a stroke. But this is called a ‘Sudden Death.’ In Matsuri’s case, she chose not to live anymore. This is something called Karōjisatsu (過労自殺), or suicide due to overwork. 

Image result for overwork japan funny

Disclosing information on Twitter

Matsuri Takahashi tweeted about her pain and suffering on a daily base. She would describe her issues about her superiors, the long working hours, and about her break-up with her boyfriend. It is not a common thing for a Japanese person to openly talk about the bad things about the company, but she did. In her tweets, she would describe the sexual harassments, the lack of sleep, spending all her time at work, and more. These tweets (in Japanese) can still be found online. The way she wrote the tweets was interesting. Unconsciously, she wrote it in a diary manner. When I went through every single tweet, Matsuri Takahashi gave an insight into her life. Sadly though, the tweets only became relevant after she died. If she did not die, her tweets would have, probably, meant nothing.

4 am going home.png
“Isn’t it funny? I am finally going home” 4 AM Japan local time. (The time indicated here is Dutch local time)

But her death, her tweets, the way she wrote, and the content was the big factor that gave power to her story. Furthermore, if Matsuri Takahashi had written her pain in a physical diary, there would probably not received the same attention by the media and by the Japanese people. But because it is online, the Japanese people can read the tweets any time of the day, and even share it with others. The Japanese people were able to sympathise with her story and read her pain first hand.

There is a certain power in disclosing information about oneself. She disclosed her opinions, her pain, her life, her emotions, and it was all true because she would have never known that her tweets would be found by anyone except for her friends. She had no agenda, except for venting on a platform as a last resort.

Image result for 死にたいと思いながらこんなに
“I want to die is all I can think of and even if I overcome that what is there for me, end of the day?”

Gender

What if Matsuri Takahashi was a young male, and ‘he’ would have done all the things above, would ‘he’ receive the same traction by the people and the media?” I asked this question to myself, to my supervisor, and my peers, and we all came to the same conclusion: No, it would have never been picked up. There is something in Japan that I would call a ‘Samurai culture.’ It is expected of the men to die while carrying out their duty. Samurais would protect a town, and they would “live by the sword and die by the sword.” Japanese women could never be a Samurai, and therefore, they would never die on duty. But in our century, the Japanese women have to work too, and they have to carry the hardships of work with them too just like the men. When a woman dies on duty, it receives the attention of the media as this should not have happened.

In other words, being a young lady, committing suicide due to overwork, played a big role in the uniqueness of her case. I believe that her age played an important role too. If she would have been 50 years old, I do not believe it would receive the same attention either. She was merely 24, at the start of her life. Furthermore, she graduated from the most prestigious university in Japan: Tokyo University.

Because she was a young lady, the sexual harassment tweets were very troublesome to read. Women in Japan are quite marginalised on the work floor. Yes, I agree it is changing, but change by Japanese standards is very, very, very slow. Yes, Japanese women are working more, but it is nothing compared to the West. As a Japanese lady, you either go full into the work life, and never marry and have no children, or marry and have children, and stay at home. Matsuri Takahashi worked hard every day, but was not rewarded for her devotion, but rather scolded on why she wasn’t dressed ‘pretty.’ In my opinion, she was gorgeous, but these comments by her superiors were just power and sexual harassments.

Image result for 男性上司から女子力がないだのな んだのと言われる
“My boss told me I lack femininity and I thought it was a joke – But he seems to be pushing it too far. Unfortunately, I wish I could tell him that despite his skin bald head, he too lacks masculinity. This sucks and is very depressing.” 5 days before her suicide

How it affected me

Her case was unique due to all the factors mentioned above. Her suicide was very unfortunate and saddened me a lot. In one of her tweets, she would write that she would finally go home at 4 AM. When I read through all her tweets and learning more about the dark side of Japan, I decided that I wanted to start a life in Europe, and not in Japan.

It was my biggest dream to come to Japan and perhaps start a life there. Japan is an amazing and beautiful place. The people, the landscape, the culture, and the language, the food, and whatnot is incredible. It was a privilege to have studied there. But there is one huge factor that I would never be able to cope, which is their work life. 

You see, work in Japan is not a torture, it is an absolute hell. I am saying all of this from a Dutch perspective. In Holland, we have, I believe, the best work-life balance in the world. We work from eight to five or nine to six, and we work five days a week. We have, on average, 25 days of paid leaves (+ national holidays), and we can relax and enjoy our lives. 

Image result for overwork japan
Source: http://fortune.com/2017/02/24/japan-karoshi-death-by-overwork/

In Japan, however, it is a norm to work on a minimum of ten hours a day. Even if you have finished your work by six, you have to remain at the office until your manager leaves. But your manager awaits his manager to leave, so in the end, you will be spending four to six hours waiting for your boss. Leaving at six will be a huge insult to your colleagues and manager. If one does leave at six, the company will think you are not devoted enough. You will receive a huge backlash, such as bullying. 

I was living and studying in Beppu, which is in the Kyushu prefecture. Beppu is one and a half hours away from Tokyo, by plane. So, we were quite in the countryside. But even there I noticed that rush hour was at 10 PM. The train station was crowded with the Japanese people. People were finally going home. The sad thing is it was not just the working people who were finally going home, but also the children. Yes, the children too.

In Japan, the children will go to school from eight till three. But after school, they will go to the baseball club, tutoring school, piano class, or whatever. I noticed that children cannot be children as much they can be here in the West. Kids fall asleep in class, working people fall asleep during work, in the metro, train, and etc, because they lack time to relax. Their time is dictated by society. 

With my observations and my research into overwork culture in Japan, I decided that it would be better to come back home. Many of my friends from developing countries see Japan as a great opportunity to level up their lives, and I respect them a lot. Coming from countries such as Bangladesh or Indonesia, life in Japan is much better. I learned a lot from my stay in Japan, and I learned to appreciate the things I have in the West. But the work life in Japan is not for me. If I would ever become a multi-millionaire, I would love to live in Japan as Japan is still a fantastic country, which I would recommend anyone to visit at least once.

Source: https://dilbert.com/strip/1993-11-02

As always, thank you for reading! 

 

Masha’Allah

 

References

Ennahachi, Z. (2019). The Death That Shook Japan’s Earth: A Case Study of Matsuri Takahashi (高橋 まつり) (Master Graduate Research Paper). Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Beppu, Japan.

Japan Today. (2016, October 24). Dentsu’s ‘power harassment hell.’ Retrieved from
http://www.japantoday.com

Nippon.com. (2016, November 3). Japan’s First “Karōshi” White Paper. Retrieved from
http://www.nippon.com.

Todai Shimbun. (2017, May 16). Tokyo University on Matsuri Takahashi about death due
to overwork. Retrieved from http://www.todaishimbun.org.