Tokyo - The Nagoya High Court yesterday upheld a lower court ruling that a 63-year-old businessman had died from overwork more than 13 years ago, and ordered a local labour standards inspection office to compensate his widow with pension payments.
The high court ruled that Mr Yoshikazu Abo, a salesman for an electric equipment company in Nagoya, central Japan, died from overwork in February 1983 while on a business trip to South Korea. In the 17 days prior to his arrival in South Korea, Mr Abo was sent by his company on 20 sales missions throughout Japan. The court rejected the argument put forward by the government's labour standards inspection office that the death was not caused by overwork.
The ruling is the latest in a trickle of karoshi cases to have come before the courts. Many more lawsuits are being prepared by the families of deceased victims who, in most cases, are claiming lifetime pensions or large lump-sum compensation payments. Before compensation can be awarded, the labour inspection office must acknowledge that the death was work-related.
In perhaps the most worrisome trend for corporate Japan, the National Police Agency has named "work-related problems" as key factors in the increase in suicides among 50-59 year-olds during 1995.
Suicides specifically related to work are also rising, although only two such deaths have so far gained official recognition. But they have already caused confusion in the insurance industry over how to handle such claims.
One disturbing trend, again highlighted by a recent court judgment, is that the victims are getting younger. The father of the youngest karoshi victim so far, a 24-year-old man, was awarded 126m ($1.1m) from his son's employers.
His father later said: "If the ruling makes even a tiny contribution to transforming Japan into a happier and healthier country, then it will have been worth the struggle."
In another recent ruling, a Japanese court held the former employer of a man who committed suicide over work-related worries fully liable for his death and ordered the company to pay 126m in compensation to the bereaved family.
Dr asuto Aoba, a professor of psychiatric medicine, said the most difficult part of winning a karoshi case was proving a sustained - and fatal - level of work-related stress or fatigue. "Depression can be established as the cause of a suicide in cases where someone has been subjected to great stress over a very brief period, but it is difficult to make the same judgment when the stress has been on-going over a long period," he said.