The word “karoshi” was invented in 1978 to describe an increasingly common phenomenon: Japanese workers, mostly the venerable salarymen, were dropping dead of heart disease in the prime of life. There was a reason it all happened in the 1970s. The shocking – to the Japanese – and humiliating loss in World War II had caused the proud country to resolve to rise again. They couldn’t rise militarily because the US wouldn’t stand for it, but they could do it economically.

As a result, working hard – often very hard – at your job wasn’t just something you did out of loyalty to your employer or even out of your own self-interest. It was a matter of patriotism, a way of helping to expiate the shameful surrender in 1945.

So just to do the math, If young men came out of school just after World War II and worked long hours for twenty years or so, they would begin dropping dead in the mid-1970s, which is when the word “karoshi” was coined. (I say “young men” because, even today there are few female equivalents of the salarymen. Only about 8% of managers in Japanese companies are women and they are referred to as “career women,” not salarymen, or, if they are lower ranking workers, as “office ladies.” In fact, most female Japanese workers are not on the career track at all (sogo-shoku) but on the non-career track (ippan-shoku, sometimes called the “mommy track.”)

In return for their hard work and loyalty, salarymen were offered “lifetime” employment, defined by Prof. Kazutoshi Koshiro as follows:

“Workers become employed right after their graduation from school with a particular company. The employer will not lay off his workers if possible even in the course of depression. The employee in turn will not quit his job at this company but tend to continue working there until he reaches his retirement age.”

It sounds good, but it set up a dangerous dynamic. Companies were encouraged to take advantage of their workers, knowing they were very unlikely to leave. And workers, for their part, had little choice but to work as hard as possible because if they quit or were let go it could be a very long way to the bottom.

The Japanese government defines karoshi as a death that occurs after a worker has worked roughly 60 hours/week for several months. I don’t doubt that there are fragile people – emotionally compromised, physically compromised, those with undiagnosed heart conditions – who could die of overwork after a few months of 60-hour weeks. But the first thought that came into my head was how preposterous this was: I hardly know anyone who hasn’t worked at least that hard every week for the last 25 years.

My second thought, amusingly, went back even longer than 25 years. When I was drafted into the Army I become a military cop. We worked 12-hour days for six consecutive days, then had two days off, then switched from day to night shift (or vice versa) and worked another 72-hour week. As far as I know, every MP during the Vietnam Era worked these hours and thought nothing of it.

On one memorable occasion I was slated to go off duty at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, having worked the night shift for six days. Unfortunately for me, that was the day President Nixon decided to visit our base. A few months earlier I’d been brevetted to Sergeant (see note, below) and placed in charge of the Military Police Traffic Division. We were the soldiers who were working with the Secret Service to ensure that the President got onto and off the base in one piece.

So instead of going off duty on Sunday at 8 a.m., I simply switched to the day shift. Nixon arrived just after lunch and left just before dinner, but by the time we got everything squared away, got debriefed by the Secret Service, and turned in our after-event reports, it was after 9 p.m. I went off duty then, having just worked a 25-hour day and an 85-hour week.

But far from entertaining thoughts of karoshi, we considered ourselves lucky. After all, there were grunts in the highlands of Vietnam, and Marines on the mid-coast at Hue, who were working 24 hours a day, living and sleeping rough, and doing it all while under almost constant enemy fire. 72-hour weeks were cushy.

In other words, we weren’t unlike the Japanese salarymen in the decades after World War II. They were working hard for a cause far larger than themselves: erasing the humiliation of the recent war. And so were we. While a good many people back home were rooting for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, we were still giving it our best. The long hours worked meant almost nothing to us.

It’s understandable that the Japanese would want to find a simple, numeric definition of karoshi, but the metric of hours-worked is wholly inadequate to explain the deaths of workers in mid-career. To understand those tragedies, we’ll need to take a closer look at the phenomenon, which we’ll do next week.

[But, first, a note on brevetting. Brevetting is a system used by militaries all over the world to saddle hapless soldiers with additional (often very heavy) responsibilities without paying them for it. Here is a simple, and common, example. An American force is engaged in a battle somewhere – let’s say in Fallujah, Iraq. The commanding general is killed and so is his top deputy, a full bird colonel. The next most senior officer in the unit – probably also a colonel – will be brevetted to general, given a star, and put in command of the battle. But he won’t be given a general’s pay, and when the battle is over he will lose his star and go back to being a colonel again, replaced by a real general. In my case, though, I was lucky. I‘d been brevetted to Sergeant, E-5 (from Specialist 4th Class), but only until the Army could find a suitable non-com to take over the Traffic Division. After four months the Army gave up and promoted me to Sergeant with full pay. While I’d been a brevet sergeant the men in my unit had called me “Brev” (though not to my face). It was only after my official promotion that they began to call me “Sarge,” which most of them still do, 45 years later.]

Next up: On Karoshi, Part 3

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