• Courtney Kirschaum

This Practice Has Replaced Ritual Suicide and Not Just in Japan

Required reading if you're thinking of not going back to the office

Tokyo was one in a series of overseas “postings” I took in my career.

Between Sydney, Melbourne, Paris, Amsterdam and a few others, I began to notice the subtle differences in a culture’s work ethic.

Each country had some slight tic or variation. For example, the refrigerator in the staff kitchen in Melbourne was stocked (and I mean jam packed) with cases of Victoria Bitter (the actual beer they drink, not Foster’s). To my everlasting regret I never got a picture of this, but words cannot describe my elation at seeing this bounty when I happened into the staff lounge one day.

I thought, “I have died and gone to heaven. I LOVE AUSTRALIA!” The company provided those beers for end of week staff socials … at the end of every week. Don’t get me wrong, the Australians worked plenty hard, they just played even harder. I was in Australia (probably drinking beer!) when my boss called and said, “When do you wrap up there and how soon can you be in Tokyo?”

I knew before arriving that the Japanese were reputed to have the strongest work ethic of all.

Our office in Tokyo didn’t have a beer-stocked fridge, it had a “refresh room” where you could go to take a break from work. It had glass walls, so your colleagues could see you “refreshing.” In a year, I never, not once, saw a soul in it.

Not long after we arrived, my American colleagues and I were discussing whether a piece of work would be ready for our upcoming launch when one of our English speaking Japanese colleagues, Yulo-San, looked at us with a somewhat stunned expression and said in heavily accented English, “This is Japan. The work will be done.”

To him, we may as well have been questioning whether or not the sun would come up tomorrow.

Yulo-san’s comment helped me to understand why, on my morning walk from my apartment on the edge of Roppongi, to my subway stop, I saw people sleeping in parked cars. After working most of the night, these professionals were trying and grab a few hours of sleep before going back to work. To my right, on the same walk, was a stunning Zen Buddhist temple and monastery, mostly hidden behind a grey, stone wall with a dragon fountain built into it. I lived on the third floor of the building next to the monastery. Every morning at 6:00 a.m. the solemn gong calling the monks to begin their day would wake me up. While I lived there, I stopped setting my alarm clock because I knew I could depend on the Monks. They never let me down.

The Japanese work as if their lives depend on it, because their honor depends on it.

Think of harikari also known as seppuku, a practice in which samurai commit ritual suicide (and in a particularly painful way) to die with honor rather than fall into the hands of their enemies.

They would also committ harikari if they’d brought shame on themselves. Brought shame on themselves… Hmmmm.

What would the modern day version of that look like? From Yulo-San, I gatehered it would look a lot like not getting the work done in time. I did learn to speak a little Japanese that year — ‘konnichiwa,’ and to read enough to get myself into the right restroom, but it wasn’t until a few years later, after I left Japan, that I learned the word Karōshi.

Karōshi is not some groovy new sushi place. It means death by work. The term was coined to describe death or suicide caused by overwork — insane hours, never ending for months on end until you’ve literally worked yourself to death — that’s Karōshi. A Kamikaze dive in slow motion.

The problem of Karōshi has become so widespread that the Japanese government has taken legislative action and implemented awareness campaigns.

When I read about the phenomena and the new Japanese word created to describe it, my time in Japan over a decade earlier came back to me. In our culture, just like in the Japan, honor and work are closely associated.

The opposite of honor is shame.

Back then,12-hour and even longer days were the norm for me and everyone on our team. I wasn’t quite up to Japanese standards, but I did my fare share of turning on the lights in the morning and turning them off at night. Looking back through my Japan pictures for this post, I thought, “you should have done a lot more picture taking and sightseeing and a lot less stressing out.”

I spent the better part of that year in Tokyo walking to work with professionals sleeping in their cars on one side and Zen monks beginning peaceful days in contemplative meditation on the other.

I would love to say that I was somewhere in the middle both literally and figuratively, but I was closer to Karōshi than I’d like to admit.

It’s not that I wanted to kill myself. In my own earnest way, without really thinking about it, I believed work equalled honor.

  • What do you believe?

  • Does your life reflect it?

  • Are you putting the good stuff on hold while you bank honor and vacation days? Sit in traffic? Wait for a break in the work?

The work never ends. It’s never done. And we just learned that a lot of it can be done from a coffee shop, a hammock or a home office. As summer approaches, skip the Karōshi and go for the Zen. Gassho, Courtney


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