The first case of karōshi was reported in 1969 with the death from a stroke of a 29-year-old male worker in the shipping department of Japan's largest newspaper company. It was not until the latter part of the 1980s, during the Bubble Economy, however, when several high-ranking business executives who were still in their prime years suddenly died without any previous sign of illness, that the media began picking up on what appeared to be a new phenomenon.
This new phenomenon was quickly labeled karōshi and was immediately seen as a new and serious menace for people in the work force. In 1987, as public concern increased, the Japanese Ministry of Labour began to publish statistics on karōshi.
Usually, Japan's rise from the devastation of World War II to economic prominence in the post-war decades has been regarded as the trigger for what has been called a new epidemic. It was recognized that employees cannot work for up to twelve or more hours a day, six or seven days a week, year after year, without suffering physically as well as mentally.
A recent measurement found that a Japanese worker has approximately two hours overtime a day on average. In almost all cases, the overtime is unpaid. The recent international expansion of Japanese multinationals has also led to an export of the Karōshi culture to countries such as China, Korea and Taiwan.
Meanwhile, death-by-overwork lawsuits have been on the rise in Japan, with the deceased person's relatives demanding compensation payments. However, before compensation can be awarded, the labour inspection office must acknowledge that the death was work-related. As this may take many years in detailed and time-consuming judicial hearings, many do not demand payment.
Japanese courts have even awarded damages to relatives in cases of work overload induced stress or depression ending with the suicide of the employee when the Labour Standards Inspection Office rejected the plea for compensation. The practice of "voluntary" undocumented unpaid overtime (sabisu-zangyo) is also reported as leading to karōshi incidents.
The Japanese Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour published relevant statistics in 2007: about 355 workers fell severely ill or died from overwork in the year to March, the highest figure on record and 7.6 percent up from the previous year. Of the total, 147 people died, many from strokes or heart attacks. Separately, another 819 workers contended they became mentally ill due to overwork, with 205 cases given compensation, according to the ministry data released on Wednesday. Mentally troubled workers killed themselves or attempted to do so in 176 cases.