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June 11, 2008
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過労死, pronounced kah-row-shee : 過 means too much, 労 means work, and 死 means death–in other words, death by overwork. It’s just a lot simpler to say in Japanese since there’s a short, three-character word for it. It’s a word everyone knows, and a fate a lot of people face, yet I was surprised to come across this article in the New York Times this morning.

While it’s a huge issue that I’m glad is getting attention, I didn’t care for the tone of the article. Statements such as “these changing attitudes reflect a broader shift as Japan, Asia’s first high-growth success story, struggles to mature into a postindustrial economy,” and speaking of Japan becoming “a more American-style workplace” didn’t sit well with me. The next great step in Japan’s future is not to be found along a predetermined path docilely following America’s lead. Suing one’s company is not the answer here. That particular aspect of American culture is abhorrent, if you ask me. Nor is shirking centuries of Japanese culture and “standing up for themselves” necessarily the best path to health and happiness. There’s more than one path to get to that goal, and America’s way is far outside the comfort zone of most Japanese. Suggesting that a homogeneous nation become a land of 127 million individualists in order to solve labor problems is akin to claiming that democracy is the best government for every country, even if the culture’s very foundations go against the whole idea. The world’s not a one-size-fits-all universe, for better or worse.

Despite my initial rejection of this American-style band aid on the consequences of Japanese work culture, I honestly can’t think of a better solution. This rant hasn’t been too productive, but I promise to keep thinking.

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