Society

This Man Can Rescue You From "Death by Overwork"

How Japanese Priest Nemoto is Fighting to Stop a Record 1,500 'Karoshi' Deaths a Year

With thanks to Kokoro Research Center

Highly conscientious, Japanese people are more likely to work themselves to death than those of any other nation – a phenomenon known simply as ‘karōshi.

A record 1,500 deaths were officially recorded last year, while unofficial statistics are much higher. Often employees don’t leave their desks all night, while one-in four-companies report staff work more over 80 hours of overtime a month – the level at which the government recognises employees are at risk of ‘death by overwork’.

This UNLIMITED film, powered by UBS, introduces Buddhist priest Ittetsu Nemoto, who treats exhausted employees by asking them to envisage their own death. Responding to a newspaper ad looking for entry-level monks, Nemoto set out on a journey that saw him turn away from a wild life of violence and discos and embrace Buddhism to the point where he’s now chief priest at Daizenji, a small temple in rural Japan. His clients, as host Monica Bryne explains, are usually those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, but he allowed us a glimpse into his process, which he calls “Tabidachi” – or “Departure”. “If you feel like you want to die, this allows you to try dying once and see what your life is like from the outside,” he explains.

Nemoto’s method – which starts by asking the vexed participant to write down the 12 most important things in their life and goes from there – is proving useful in a country that has one of the world’s highest suicide rates and a work culture that is macerating. The two often go hand in hand – there is even a word for it: “karoshi”, which roughly translates as “death by overwork”.

Kouji Miki is an escapee from this grim treadmill who tells of working days in Tokyo that would begin at 5AM and end at 11PM, fuelled by a diet that consisted solely of ready meals. In his previous environment, reports of suicide weren’t uncommon – now, as the co-founder of Zen 2.0, he’s leading the adoption of corporate mindfulness in the city of Kamakura to ensure employees don’t follow that path. “I want people to realise there is an ocean of ideas inside of them,” he says.

Also taking in an illuminating conversation with Fujino Masahiro, a Ph.D student of Kyoto University, who researches meditation using an MRI scanner, working with the support of the Kokoro Research Center. This is a film that starts with a list of 12 things and ends with burning paper, and that at its heart is about people seeking answers to the questions: What happens to a life when it’s robbed of its central thrust? What happens to us when we lose our faith in time?

“You try to calm the wave to see what’s there,” Nemoto says at one point, “at the bottom of the sea.” What’s there will likely be different for everyone on Earth. The means in which we are able to get a glimpse at it seem tantalisingly, universally at hand.