A young Chinese worker's death has put the spotlight on the rise of a fatal job trend in Japan.

Thirty one-year-old Jiang Xiao Dong died screaming in the night a long way from home.

His two room-mates, also young Chinese men who left their homeland for the dream of a better future in wealthy Japan, woke in the early hours of June 6, 2008, to see their co-worker and friend dying in his bed.

When the ambulance arrived 15 minutes later at the small apartment dorm in Itako City, in Ibaraki prefecture, where the men lived, Jiang was already dead. The autopsy concluded he had died of sudden heart failure, yet there was no apparent cause.

There was no internal or external evidence of injury or disease, and no drugs found in his system.

Further investigation into Jiang's lifestyle and background revealed nothing suspect.

His diet was better than average, he didn't drink alcohol and medical records showed no history of illness. Everything about his life suggested he was a normal, healthy young man with a long life ahead of him.

But several details about Jiang's job at Fuji Electric Industries, where he worked on the metal plating production line, didn't add up.

His co-workers told investigators he did a huge amount of overtime, yet company records showed no such thing. The time card the company submitted showed he did only a relatively small amount of overtime work in the lead up to his death.

Under pressure from Lawyer's Network for Trainees, a collective of Japanese lawyers who represent migrant workers and their families, the authorities started an official investigation into Jiang's death.

Last month the Japanese Labour Standards Office finally made a ruling - Jiang had died of "karoshi" or death from overwork. It was the first time Japanese authorities had ever officially recognised a foreign intern as dying from overwork.

Jiang's case has been passed to the public prosecutor, but it is not known if criminal charges will be laid against Fuji Electric Industries or its president, Takehiko Fujioka.

Furthermore, lawyers representing Jiang's wife and family, who are suing for compensation, claim the company falsified work records by creating a new time card which showed Jiang worked considerably less overtime than he actually did.

Their investigators found that in the year up to his death, Jiang did an average of more than 150 hours overtime a month - a combined monthly total of 310 or more hours at work.

It was also found that in the same year, Jiang only twice took more than two days off in a row.

Although largely unknown in the West, karoshi is now officially recognised as a problem in Japan.

Under Japanese law, when a worker dies from brain or heart disease and their overtime working hours exceed 100 hours in the month before their death, or the average monthly overtime is more than 80 hours for two to six months before death, overwork is seen as the cause.

Lawyer Hiroshi Kawahito, a karoshi expert, said although it was not possible to "perfectly prove" an instance of death from overwork, if one looked at overall pattern of a person's life it was clear in many cases that stress, both physical and mental, of long working hours negatively influenced the health of workers.

"Two hundred thousand people die in Japan every year from stroke and heart attack. We believe about 10 per cent of these cases are due to overwork." He said asthma, suicide and many mental illnesses were also often caused by extreme overwork.

Westerners tend to see Japan's workaholic society as the result of cultural traditions which promote hierarchy and deference to authority, but Kawahito believes this is not the root cause.

"Japan's current work system is not part of traditional Japanese culture, but a modern phenomenon which developed in order to catch up with Europe and the United States."

He added that the post-World War II mentality of the Japanese people was that they must work harder than everyone else.

"Japan was completely defeated in World War II by the US, so, maybe, Japanese people are afraid Japan will be defeated again, not militarily, but economically."

It was into this uncompromising and severe work system that Chinese migrant Jiang Xiao Dong stepped in the winter of 2006.

Originally from a farming family in rural Jiangsu province in Eastern China, Jiang travelled to Japan to earn money to build a better life for his family back home.

His younger sister, who requested anonymity, said he felt a strong obligation to support his family in China.

As their father was unable to perform farm work due to health problems, Jiang was the family's "greatest hope of a livelihood".

"The reason my brother went to Japan at all was for his own future, but more than this, as the eldest son, it was also for the happiness of his parents in their old age," she said.

The emotional toll of Jiang's death on his family has been severe and, according to his sister, led to the premature death of their mother who died of brain cancer last June - just three days before the Japanese authorities formally recognised that Jiang died from overwork.

Just before their mother's death Jiang's sister wrote: "My mother, who was always lively, is now withdrawn and spends a lot of time just staring at my brother's photograph.

"Every time I return to my parent's home and see my parent's grief it makes me sadder. What's more, it pains me beyond words when I see my niece with an innocent expression ask my sister-in-law: 'When is daddy coming home?"'

After her mother died, she wrote: "I can't help but think that my mother's sudden death at such a young age is related to the shock of my brother's death. My mother passed away on the 30th of June. [We] found out my brother's death had been recognised as work-related on July 2nd. I keep thinking things such as, if this recognition had come but three days sooner, my mother could have passed on to the afterlife a little more at ease. She might have been able to meet my brother there; she might have been able to tell him the news too."

The Herald contacted the Japan International Training Co-operation Organisation (JITCO) requesting an interview and submitted written questions about the Industrial Training and Internship Programme.

JITCO said it was not able to reply in time for publication.

Several phone calls were made to Fuji Electric Industries but the company president, Takehiko Fujioka, could not be reached for comment.


Foreign interns fall through cracks in law

During the boom years of the late '80s and early '90s a huge labour shortage in Japan's industrial sector developed, but the country's strict immigration laws limited the entry of unskilled foreign labour.

At this time a residency status called "trainee" was established which created a loophole allowing Japanese companies to import cheap foreign labour because "trainees" were not officially classified as "workers".

Although workers in Japan are entitled to a minimum wage and protection under labour laws, "trainees" are not. The minimum wage in Japan varies according to region. The national average is 713 yen ($11.40) an hour.

"Trainees" receive a monthly allowance instead of a wage, which for most first-year trainees falls between 60,000 and 80,000. This is equivalent to an hourly wage in the range of 375 to 500 an hour for a full-time 40-hour week.

The Japanese Government has begun to phase out the trainee status of residency due to criticism at home and abroad, but it still exists for foreign workers who came to Japan before this year.

In 2008, 34 foreign "trainees", who came in through the Industrial Training and Internship Programme, died. Of these, 16 died from heart and brain disease and most were only in their 20s and 30s. Five died from work-related accidents and one from suicide.

A Japan International Training Co-operation Organisation report said: "The rate of death of heart disease of trainees and technical interns was almost double the rate for Japanese of the same age."

- Translation assistance by James Benson.