A Succinct, Scathing Critique of “Zangyou” and “Karoshi” From the Standpoint of Karl Marx

Capital, a 3 volume piece jointly published by the late Karl Marx and Friedrick Engels, has won notoriety for both its length and its application in communist states. An interesting thing to note is that Capital Volume 1 is posterior to the original and incomplete drafts of Volumes 2 and 3. The last two volumes were later edited, finalized, and published by Marx’s lifetime friend, Friedrick Engels. This makes Volume 1 the most “up-to-date” with the ideas of Marx in his later years.

It also provides a wonderful excuse for not reading Volumes 2 and 3.

Contrary to public misconception, Marx strove to analyze capitalism in an objective and strictly scientific way. This makes Capital a meaningful book to read, since the entire world has been brought to its heels by the Capitalist-world-order.

Of course, capitalism provides a plethora of commodities and encourages innovation. On the surface, it seems like our Quality of Life is rising.

But is it really? Are you truly happy? Do you enjoy being surrounded by things things things?

Let’s begin by thinking about the value of an object. The value of an object has long been contemplated by man’s greatest thinkers – including Aristotle. In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that the value of an object lies relative to another object. For example, 1 house = 5 beds. However, he fails to see that the value of an object, atleast insofar as society is concerned, lies in the amount of expended human labor. The notion that the value of an object lies in labor was advanced by William Petty, who wrote “labor is the father of material wealth, the earth is its mother” in his work A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions.

Now we can see that any object that holds monetary worth does so because socially recognized human labor has been expended upon it. This, however, doesn’t explain how surplus value is created. In other words, why is corn flakes so much more expensive than a bushel of corn?

Marx enlightens us through his observation, “the formation of surplus value by surplus labor is no secret” Capital Vol. 1, p.352. Ahh, this makes sense, corn flakes is more expensive than a bushel of corn because surplus labor has been expended to create the surplus value.

Let me explain, in brief, what surplus labor and surplus value is. Say the amount of money to make a box of corn flakes costs the capitalist $2.00, but he can sell it on the market for $4.00. Well then, where is extra $2.00 coming from? According to vulgar economists, it is “magical” – the magic of capitalism!

A closer observation reveals that this isn’t magic at all- but the work of exploitation. After all, “nil posse creari de nihilo” (out of nothing, nothing can be created), De rerum Natura, Bk I, verses 156-157, Lucretius.

In summation: Profit is created through surplus labor, which is basically exploitation.

Now that we’ve covered Marx, let me say something downright baffling: Japanese salarymen love being exploited. They do. They absolutely, undeniably do.

The French wrote woefully in their Economic White Paper in 1981 that they can’t possibly compete against Japanese imports, because the Japanese are obsessed with working. The Japanese live in rabbit holes, do “zangyou” – work extra hours, and even die from “karoshi” – death from overwork. Holy smokes. That’s too much competition for a Frenchman – he wants to stay alive!

Little has changed since 1981. The interesting thing, though, is how long exploitation has been continuing.

Take, for instance, this newspaper headline: “Death from simple over-work”
When do you think this newspaper was published? 1970? 1960? You’re off by a century.

It was actually published in the London daily papers in June of 1863, which shocked Britons with the death of a certain Mary Anne Walkley, who worked on average 16.5 hours a day. She died from, as the Japanese call it, “karoshi.”

Ahh! So “karoshi” is death from overwork, and it has been around ever since the industrial revolution! We now see that overworking employees is a characteristic of capitalism.

The Japanese seem to find little wrong with “zangyou,” or putting in extra hours of unpaid concentration. They offer their unwavering loyalty and deference to their “kaisha” or corporation, and many literally work to death.

One cannot help but wonder why.

On the whole, looking at Japan through a historical lens, the Japanese idolize selfless / self-mutilating acts to advance the common good (think suicides during WWII.) In this particular case, Japanese salarymen (the foot-soldiers of the Japanese economy) risk their health to advance the interests of their companys’ corporate agenda.

Does he not realize that his health deteriorates? Does he not realize that the company is not what life should be all about in the first place? Does he not realize that he must also be a loving father and a loving husband?

I mean, here’s some stunning statistics. Of the OECD countries, men spend an average of 2 hours a day child-rearing. Japanese men spend an average of just 36 minutes a day looking after their children. Japanese women spend 8.6 times as much per day than their male counterparts in child-rearing. No wonder so many Japanese women hesitate getting married.

“Zangyou,” apart from the risk it harbors of leading to “karoshi,” also prevents the creating of a cultured man and a warm household.

Luckily, things are beginning to change. In Japan, being self-employed is finally taking hold as an alternative to working for a company. This is, as Marx envisioned, “an association of free men,” Capital, Vol. 1. An example of said association would be “sasaeai awayama,” a community-based association that provides jobs, goods and services for its community.

The number of those in an “association” has risen to 60,000 in Japan.
Let’s hope this brings a healthy alternative to toiling for a Japanese company.


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  4. [...] Zangyou or overtime is overwhelmingly common in Japanese companies. At most companies it is almost understood that you will be working one or two hours after your scheduled work time. This may be paid or it may be unpaid although companies are starting to reduce peoples hours after much criticism from various places. But work after work isn’t the only responsibility one has at a Japanese company. It is commonplace for coworkers to go drinking together and while you won’t be forced to go, don’t expect a promotion or the bosses favor if you don’t. Many people get very drunk at these Nomi-kai (or drinking parties), yet the next day, it is rare to hear anyone talk about the night before. In other words, what happens at nomi-kai stays at nomi-kai. [...]

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