Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On Oversimplifying "Karoshi"

I have more than once been accused of oversimplifying topics in this blog that are complicated enough to warrant entire articles or lengthy essays in order to completely explore them. I like to keep things (fairly) short on here to fit (what I can only assume is) the span of the average internet viewer, which I'm afraid has turned much of my nonfiction writing into one-sided snippets that never allow the reader to become fully informed. To write proficiently about the topics I'm interested in, especially those related to Japan, requires more time and a higher word count than I've been allowing my entries.

With "Karoshi," however, I never intended to give a complete perspective of the Japanese habits of overwork, though I'm afraid some people might read it that way. I wrote it in an attempt to capture the horror and cruelty of the Japanese business world that I'm surrounded by every day. I see it in my own workplace, in the textbooks I teach, when I talk to my students about their jobs, in books about Japanese daily life, at the bank, on the street, and even in my own fiction (where do you think Corporate Takeover came from?). There are things here that irk me terribly, and the business world is one of them. I wanted to recreate the pain I see on people's faces after long, stress-filled days at jobs they're afraid to leave. I wanted to shock people the way I was shocked when a girl I knew suffered a nervous breakdown at her job and had to be sent back home. I wanted to scare people the way Orwell scares them in the final chapters of 1984. The way the business world scares me sometimes.

So, to do that, I oversimplified things. My dictionary translates karoshi as "death by overwork," which in English is a perfectly reasonable way of describing that end just as we might use "death by dehydration" or "death by vomiting" to describe a mode of death without a more convenient term. Overworking can cause death or serious health problems for Americans just as readily as it could for Japanese, and I certainly don't mean to imply that some linguistic barrier prevents us from recognizing that danger.

Perhaps my attempts to shock and horrify are best left to fiction, and not just my entries here that routinely blur that line. For all my talk of disguising fiction as fact, and vice versa, sometimes it can be detrimental to the way people read about unfamiliar cultural topics. It makes it much harder to recognize hyperbole. But in all seriousness, I want to address a topic as complex as Corporate Japan as honestly and thoroughly as I can in whichever medium is best. You haven't heard the last of me on this one.

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