If you ever think that Japan is a country of great hospitality and politeness, you should know that behind their happy face might reveal deadly diligence and sacrifice.

For a long time, the terms karoshi (death by work) and suicide have been used interchangeably in many workplaces because there no direct cause-and-effect link can be established between the alleged murderer (the company) and the deceased worker. Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has set the deadly line of overtime work as either 100 hours a month or 80+ hours for two consecutive months or more. The implication here is that if an employee suffers from either mental or physical illness or both, it can be attributed to their work conditions, although the number alone cannot be a sole factor in determining whether or not such conditions are the direct cause of illness or vice versa. (For example, some people can develop such illness with less than 80 hours of overwork a month, calling for a more comprehensive review of work environments.)

To raise awareness of such labor exploitation by pinpointing the most notorious companies in existence, a group of people formed a special committee last year and decided to give an award to the most evil corporation of the year — or the Black Corporations Award.


A black corporation is defined as a company that operates its business on sweatshop practices such as unpaid overtime work, power harassment, use of violence as a means of training or discipline, or just about anything else that does not adhere to labor laws. On June 17th, the committee announced eight nominees for the 2013 (their second) award. All the nominations are made on the basis of actual public records on occupational injuries and/or illnesses confirmed by authorities.

Here are the eight nominees:
Watami Foodservice Co., Ltd (Restaurant Chain)
Cross Company Inc. (Clothing Retailer)
Benesse Corporation (Education and Publishing)
Sun Challenge Corporation (Steak Restaurant Chain)
Ohsho Food Service Corporation (Restaurant Chain)
Seino Transportation Co., Ltd. (Transportation Service)
Tokyu Hands Inc. (Department Store)
Tohoku University

Watami Foodservice was nominated for the second time in a row.

watami food service overwork karoshi

In 2008, Mina Mori, a Watami employee, committed suicide at the age of 26, just two months after joining the company — she was reportedly working 141 hours of overtime a month. While committing suicide might sound like a matter of individual choice which a company cannot be held liable for, the fact that she chose to kill herself tells us the forced mentality of a diligent worker who sought her last comfort in death.

Miki Watanabe, founder of Watami, is now running for the House of Councilors election, to be held on July 21st, with the backing of the Liberal Democratic Party. With more and more people (especially the younger generations) losing interest in politics, the only way to increase voter turnout might be to go for the elimination route, which is to vote for ones that we believe should not take office but which will then work against the votes of the worse candidate. (This was Matsuko Deluxe‘s comment in a recent TV show, though he was not referring to a particular candidate.)

miki watanabe watami overwork karoshi

Another one on the list, education company Benesse Corporation was recently reported as a company that ruthlessly encourages its employees to quit their jobs, while not using forcible methods.

benesse corporation japan overwork karoshi

In 2009, they established a new division in the company and started to send people who they want to let go. They gave them a “new assignment” — finding a new position in the company themselves. Yes, their new work was to do job-hunting within their own workplace while deprived of the most fundamental rights as company employees; they were not allowed to answer phone calls, carry business cards or access the company’s network system.

I was personally quite shocked to hear the news, because Benesse has been a leading force in the educational industry, helping millions of kids with their studies, myself included, through their correspondence education programs which to me made schoolwork less of a burden in so many ways. But maybe this is another part of the already corrupt education system in Japan.

Perhaps not surprisingly, none of the nominees attended the award ceremony last year, despite the fact that the committee had sent out the invitations to all beforehand. Will any of them be present this year when the award is announced on August 11th? If they do show up, surely they will all be welcomed with a great round of applause for their very own recognition of a well-deserved award.

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