A single word for "death from overwork" – imagine that! You've probably seen the astonishment over that fact in contexts like this WIRED article: "And in a nation that actually has a word for 'death from overwork,'...", the gist of which is that the existence of a single word for the concept reveals its unusual severity or significance in Japan.
In fact, there is a single word for "death from overwork" in Japanese: karoushi (過労死). There's no argument about that (well, except maybe from those claiming that Japanese has no words). The word exists.
What I'm debunking here is the overworked meme that the phenomenon's single-word status has any significance whatsoever. It doesn't.
An overworked meme
Karoushi is formed from the on (Chinese) readings of its characters: karou (過労) for overwork, and shi (死) for death. The thing is, many "death from..." constructions in Japanese are formed from Chinese roots in the same manner. Just take a cause for demise, tack shi on the end, and blammo, you have a nifty and lethal word.
Thus, there are single words for death from freezing (凍死, toushi), death from burning (焼死, shoushi), death from starvation (餓死, gashi), and so on. The single-word status of these is linguistic happenstance, not an indicator of special cultural relevance. (In the same way, English has a single word for "death from asphyxiation in liquid", yet understandably, nobody uses that to draw special connections between Englishmen and drowning.)
Language aside, karoushi is a serious problem in Japan, isn't it? Well, to the degree that it happens at all, certainly it is. But only data can tell us whether it's unusually common in Japan.
The word karoushi only gained currency in Japan from the late '60s, with the government starting to report statistics from the late 80s. In 2007, the Japanese government reported 147 karoushi deaths in the previous fiscal year. Note that these aren't some bizarre human explosions from excess labor; they're mostly mundane strokes and heart attacks, following documented instances of work under conditions such as (for example) excessive long-term overtime.
To be sure, workers all over the world drop dead from heart attacks or strokes following excessive labor in offices, fields, mines, wherever. Sadly, there's nothing at all unusual about, say, a hard-driving executive, or member of the working poor juggling three jobs, falling to a stroke in the US. Yet are there 300 instances or so of this per year in the US, which would put it on per-capita par with Japan? I don't know. Unfortunately for commendable efforts to improve conditions for workers, international comparisons aren't easy as few countries collect data on death from causes related to overwork. (On the other hand, the fact that Japan collects data, and has experienced many court cases on karoushi issues, does at least indicate a high level of concern in the country.)
If anyone out there knows of evidence showing whether karoushi is unusually common in Japan, I'd love to see sources. Until then, let me reiterate the short and simple point of this all, via summary:
The fact that people are talking about death from overwork at all shows that, wherever it may happen, it's a real and tragic issue. It may or may not be a particularly serious problem in Japan; I don't have the comparative statistics to say. But for the record, the fact that the Japanese language refers to the phenomenon with a single word has no significance.