Webdef: Karoshi

Karoshi / ka·rō·shē/  Noun: A Japanese word meaning death by overwork.  

The bible cautions us to have a day of rest, but there are many reasons why this can be difficult or impossible, given the pressures for survival.  Overwork can harm our health, to the point where it can actually lead to an early death. In Japan, there is a word for this: karoshi, (過労死 ).  In Korea, the term for it is  gwarosa (과로사/過勞死), whereas in China, it is known as guolaosi (trad: 過勞死  or simplified: 过劳死).  In the United States, people are beginning to use karoshi, the original term, first used as early as 1969. Overwork has always been a problem, but it is receiving growing recognition as a worldwide phenomenon. To some epidemiologists, it is considered an epidemic.  

In a case study on karoshi1, The International Labor Organization cited  four typical examples, including a nurse who died from a heart attack at age 22, after 34 hours of continuous duty, five times a month, and a worker who also died of a heart attack at age 34, after enduring 110-hours work weeks, and whose death was noted as work-related by the Labor Standards Office.

Karoshi does not refer to an honest day’s work. Of course, proverbs teach that a lazy hand makes for poverty but a diligent hand brings wealth (Prov. 10:4), that diligent hands will rule while laziness ends in forced labor (Prov. 12:24) and that a hard worker will not lack for food (Prov. 28:19).  Paul, too, suggests that work without grumbling or arguing (Philippians 2:14), working hard and dedicating all we do to Jesus, giving thanks while remembering that the Lord will provide an inheritance (Colossians 3:17 &  3:23-24). 

No, Karoshi is not about hard work, it is about impossible work. It touches on a fundamental unfairness in the labor market. In the USA, employment law traces its roots back to the master-servant laws brought over from English common law hundreds of years ago2, a name that has certain connotations tracing back to the employment relationship itself, and the responsibilities of the employer, and the civic society in which the employer is allowed to operate.  It would seem that to really understand karoshi, we need to take a look at systemic sin.  In a world where extreme economic pressures force laborers into such extreme choices, the Bible’s call to a day of rest rings out loudly, and should be heeded by those in a position of power:

But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. (Deut. 5:14 KJV)

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WebDefs – simple definitions of key terms relating to ministry and healing arts – are a regular feature of NHM Ministrants. Offered in conjunction with select key scriptural passages and analysis, WebDefs can be a useful starting place for exploring a topic of interest.


Case Study: Karoshi: Death from Overwork. Online at http://www.ilo.org/safework/info/publications/WCMS_211571/lang–en/index.htm and accessed October 29, 2017.

Master and Servant”: The Roots of American Employment Law. Online at https://newworkplace.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/master-and-servant-the-roots-of-american-employment-law/ and accessed October 29, 2017.

Categories WebDefs | Tags: | Posted on October 29, 2017

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