Press reports about the karōshi epidemic helped push millions of young workers—many of them college graduates who had been offered jobs with major companies—to opt out of Japan’s deadly corporate culture, instead choosing freelance or part-time careers that allowed for a more relaxed lifestyle. It seemed like a prophylactic, of sorts, against karōshi, and indeed, until around 2008, Japan’s karōshi hotlines were used almost exclusively by full-time, salaried workers. (It was considered a shocking outlier, for example, when a young restaurant worker killed herself that year after working more than 140 hours of overtime in a single month.)
These days, though, Obayashi feels that part-time workers are increasingly at risk of karōshi. In recent years, firms have been eschewing full-time workers in favor of more flexible arrangements with recruits who work for lower wages, with less job security, which leaves them vulnerable to abuses like unpaid overtime and has forced many to take extra jobs. Since 2015, Japan’s number of workers with two or more jobs has grown by roughly 30 percent. “Today’s generation of part-time workers can’t afford to be so carefree,” Obayashi told me.
The Japanese government, which now considers people to be at risk of karōshi if they regularly work 60 hours a week or more, does not publish statistics on the working hours of part-timers with multiple jobs. In July, hoping for a clearer picture, I visited Asami Ito, a community manager at Lancers, which builds software platforms that match freelance workers with companies. According to Lancers research, some 4.5 million full-time workers in Japan have second jobs, where they work, on average, between six and 14 additional hours each week, on top of any overtime hours they clock at their primary job; a small number of them work up to 30 or 40 hours per week at their second jobs. “We’re recruiting many more ‘parallel workers,’” Ito told me, using a Lancers nickname for people with side jobs on top of full-time jobs. Ito said Lancers’s research suggests most of Japan’s workforce will be freelancers by 2027.
The fact that people are working multiple part-time jobs just to earn a living wage is surprising, given that Japan’s low birth rates have left the labor market as tight as it has been in forty years, with almost 1.6 jobs for every applicant. In the food-service industry, workers are in such short supply that McDonald’s recently resorted to an expensive advertising campaign aimed at recruiting housewives and retirees to help out with its busiest shifts. Convenience-store chains have hired more foreign workers, while small and mid-sized manufacturing companies have increasingly turned to automation. But the one recruitment strategy that hasn’t really taken hold is increasing wages.
An explanation lies partly in Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s signature fiscal policy, known as “Abenomics,” which relies in part on using monetary policies to weaken the yen so as to make exports cheaper for foreigners—which has increased profits for Japan’s manufacturers. In theory, higher corporate profits should have led to higher wages and an increase in consumer spending. Instead, Japan’s corporations have chosen to sit on the piles of cash they’ve earned from Abe’s fiscal policy. Each spring, over the past six years of Abenomics, the leaders of Japan’s major industries have ceded remarkably little ground to unions during the annual wage negotiations known as shuntō. Workers have responded by saving what little cash they have, rather than spending it. And while a weaker yen has helped corporations increase exports, it has also made importing products and materials more expensive, which contributes to weakened buying power for Japan’s increasingly cash-strapped households. Overall, workers are spending an average of 11 percent more time to earn the same salary they were bringing home about 20 years ago, and some are working unpaid overtime on top of that. Even the most promising gains leave room for pessimism: In June, government data showed that inflation-adjusted wages rose at a pace not seen since 1997, but that was mostly due to large one-off summer bonuses.