Japan crossing
Pedestrians cross the road on a zebra crossing in the Tokyo's Shibuya shopping district in Tokyo REUTERS/Issei Kato

The Japanese government has approved a plan to cut working hours in a bid to lower the country's suicide rate, one of the highest in the world.

Japan's strenuous working culture is under intense scrutiny after the family of an Olympic stadium worker petitioned the government to recognise his suicide as 'karoshi', the Japanese legal term for 'death by overwork'.

The construction worker, who began working on the stadium in December, clocked 200 hours of overtime in March, before his body was found in April.

Every year hundreds of 'karoshi' deaths are recorded in Japan. A fifth of the Japanese workforce faces the risk of death from overwork, according to a 2016 survey by the Japanese government.

Of Japanese companies polled, 23% said that some of their employees logged more than 80 hours of overtime. The report stated that on average 21% of Japanese employees work 49 hours or more each week.

Japan has the highest suicide rate among the G7 countries. In 2015, the suicide rate - the ratio per 100,000 people - was 18.5. The government hopes to cut the rate by 30% over the next ten years and reduce it to below 13.0 by 2025.

Suicides have fallen significantly since 2003, when 34,427 people took their own lives. In 2016, the number of suicides was 21,897.

The government ramped up efforts to tackle the issue after an employee at Japan's largest advertising agency took her own life in 2015. Matsuri Takahashi regularly logged more than 100 hours per month at advertising agency Dentsu before her death.

Dentsu's president Tadashi Ishii resigned and apologised to Takahashi's family for "failing to prevent the overwork of our new recruit."

Takahashi's suicide prompted the government to introduce a cap on overtime. Critics say the 100-hour per month limit is still too high.

In May, the Ministry of Labour released its first nationwide employer blacklist, naming and shaming more than 300 companies for illegal overtime violations.

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