Another tragic case of death from overwork (過労死) highlights a culture of labor abuse. Reform is needed.

As the Abe administration tries to accelerate “work style reform” to address the issue of chronically long working hours, probably in an ultimately negative way, another case of karoshi (過労死) also known as death by overwork, was made public by family members of a victim last month. A 51-year-old sales manager working for Sansei, a mold manufacturing company in the city of Oshu in Iwate Prefecture, passed away after an intracerebral hemorrhage in 2011. The family waited many years before finally deciding to take the case to court. The man had been working up to 111 hours of overtime in a month. Family members of the victim insist that the company should have taken necessary measures to lessen his workload. They held a press conference this month.

The business friendly Japanese government fails to prevent death by overwork.  In January, the Labor Ministry did put up signs saying” Stop Karoshi”,  urging an end to death by overwork, “for a society where people can continue to labor”. In essence, “work overtime but don’t die on the job”.

 

The father of two children, the karoshi victim, was hired as an engineer working at the company’s plant in his hometown of Oshu in 1989. After being assigned to sales manager’s position, his daily tasks included sending out invoices and promoting the company’s supplies to potential customers, making several business trips a month. In addition to those tasks, he had to assess the work of his team members to determine their bonuses. He was also asked to organize company sponsored softball games and annual end-of-the-year parties. His workload began to gradually increase and the records his family members were able to collect show he continuously worked 60 to 80 hours of overtime a month since 2002. His son recalls that since he always left home at 7:00am and came home very late at night, sometimes later than 11:00pm. They were able to dine with him just once a week, on Sunday nights.

Even the worker himself became aware of being dangerously overworked. He once told his wife, “I’m working way too much so that if something happens to me, don’t hesitate to sue the company.”

Several months after he collapsed in his home on a Saturday afternoon in front of his family, his wife, certain that it was the work condition that pushed him to die, applied for worker’s compensation which was later accepted by the labor standards inspection office in Hanamaki, Iwate. However, the company insisted it was actually his preexisting health conditions that was the main cause and refused to apologize or compensate for his death. His wife and the two children decided to take the case to civil court. “The government concluded after investigation that this is karoshi but the company decided not to admit. Now, it needs to be held responsible for what it has done to my father,” the son stated. The first hearing is to scheduled to be held in January 2018.

Cases like this are not at all uncommon in Japan. It was 1978 when a doctor specialized in occupational diseases first introduced the term karoshi, literally translated as “death from overwork” in Japanese[i]. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, one in eight (12.6%) full time workers work more than 60 hours per week; the government considers death from overwork becomes a serious possibility if working more than 60 hours a week[ii]. The government finally passed legislation, the act on promotion of karoshi prevention countermeasures, in 2014, amid increasing pressures mainly from a group of karoshi victim family members[iii]. However, the number of karoshi incidents has been held steady. In 2016, 198 cases of suicide karoshi (or karojisatsu) were filed to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in addition to 261 cases of karoshi from brain and heart related disorders[iv]. Experts say this is an extremely conservative figure because many workers and their families simply do not know what to do when their loved ones suddenly pass away. Even if they come to conclude work is the cause, they must find ways to prove victims actually worked excessive overtime. Many companies forge timesheets, ordering to clock in and out on a fixed time everyday, and the rest do not keep track of work hours at all.

“It is extremely difficult for family members to find evidence of overwork. They are not experts of labor law and often those companies hide the evidence or even try to persuade family members not to speak out by offering a small compensation,” Haruki Konno of POSSE, a labor rights organization that has been supporting the family in this case. “There must be so many cases that fly under the radar. We need to support karoshi victim family members or those faced with bad working conditions so that they can to take actions against management.”

 

[i] http://www.ilo.org/safework/info/publications/WCMS_211571/lang–en/index.htm

[ii] http://www.jil.go.jp/kokunai/blt/backnumber/2017/01/064-072.pdf

[iii]https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/11/15/editorials/getting-a-grip-on-karoshi/#.Wi4TzUtpHOQ

[iv] http://www.mhlw.go.jp/stf/houdou/0000168672.html

Is Japan’s Press Partially Responsible For The Decline Of Press Freedom?

Ever since the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in 2012 for the second time, Japan has been criticized for failing to guarantee fundamental human rights to its citizens and cracking down on press freedom. The international community, from the United Nations to Japan’s most important ally the United States, has pointed out that the Japanese government is undermining the freedom of the press. The report released last month by David Kaye, the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression, is just another example.

Japan’s Press Freedom has steadily declined since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office. From 11 to 72.

On July 1st, a group of journalists and academics gathered at the symposium titled Contemporary Crises in the Asia-Pacific, jointly hosted by Sophia University Institute of Comparative Culture and Japan Focus, to discuss the state of journalism in Japan.

The event began with freelance journalist David McNeill showing how Japanese journalism continues to be undermined by the government.

Japan’s decline in freedom of press ranking (currently at 72, it was 11 in 2010) clearly shows that journalists in Japan face tough times gathering information and publishing news that are in the public interest but not the interest of the Japanese government or powerful corporations.

 David McNeill pointed out, “Government officials have shied away from holding press conferences in the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ) to avoid being faced with tough questions. Instead, they prefer to have private meetings with the media whom they favor and speak everything off the record.”

Another panelist, Michael Penn of the Shingetsu News Agency, supported Kaye’s claim of the press club system undermining the media’s ability to gather information in the public interest. The press club offers exclusive access only to mainstream media journalists who get to attend high official press conferences. As a freelance journalist, Penn has been excluded from having access to attend press conferences, unable to gather information first hand. Penn claims that, “It is not the government who is excluding me from attending press conferences but the mainstream mass media that are in charge of running the club that keep telling me no.” He stated that although the Abe government is undoubtedly applying pressure to the media, it is the media and journalists themselves that are overreacting and imposing “self censorship”.

Nowadays, Penn claims, there are as much overt pressure from the government but the media itself feels the pressure, and by reading between the lines, they are restrict producing content that may have a chance to upset Abe. Penn comes to a conclusion that we need to realize the mainstream media are on the government side.

In order to free journalists from pressures coming from the government and the media itself, Yasuomi Sawa from Kyodo News (the Associated Press of Japan)  brought up an idea of creating a network of journalists from all sections of the industry and providing an opportunity to interact with journalists from other media outfits. As Kaye correctly pointed out in his report, journalists in large media enterprises are organized by enterprise unions instead of craft or industrial unions. Because the journalists are organized in such a unique way, they tend to stay in their companies sometimes for their entire careers and are unable to form solidarity among themselves as professional journalists. Mr. Sawa also claims that for journalists to be compensated and recognized accordingly, there needs to be more awards given to good journalistic work.

In the event, all panel members agreed that journalists and academicians need to come up with ways to overcome the pressure coming from the government and within the media itself to tell the public what they have the right to know and the truth they should know.

 

 

 

Student Loan Defaults Increasing At Record Speed in Japan

As the cost of obtaining a college degree has skyrocketed over the years, millions of Japanese are facing potential financial crisis for pursuing post-secondary education.

According to the documents obtained through a freedom of information request to Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), a government funded organization which is responsible for lending more than 99 percent of all student loans Japanese college students use, 735 individuals who used JASSO student loans filed for bankruptcy in the year of 2015. The number was at 487 in 2013, an increase of a whopping 34 percent in just two years.

 

The Abenomics, economic policies advocated by Prime Minister Shinzo based upon the “three arrows” of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms, was supposed to revive the Japanese economy and improve living conditions. The situation, however, has been the exact opposite.

Wages remain the same and real wage growth has even been negative in the past several months. It finally increased in May when the government announced a 0.5 increase from the same month of the past year. However, according to the data from the National Tax Agency, more than 11,390,000 people in 2014 are living off an annual salary of less than 2,000,000 Yen, making them the so-called “working poor”. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened. The relative poverty rates stand at 16 percent also in 2014, the worst on record.

Such economic conditions have taken a toll on graduates repaying their student loans. The reasons for increasing student loan defaults are clear: the increase in tuitions and the decrease in decently paying jobs.

It might be difficult for those who graduated college in the 70s and the 80s to understand why the young are having so much difficulty repaying their student loans. This is because the cost of getting a college degree has gone through the roof. The tuition of attending national universities was set at 36,000 Yen per year in 1975. Now, students at national universities pay 535,800 Yen a year, a 1388 percent increase.  Those attending private universities face a much tougher situation. On average, private schools charged about 180,000 Yen per year in 1975 according to the data published by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Now private universities ask their students to pay 860,000 Yen.

As college tuitions continue to increase on a yearly basis, more and more students are borrowing money from JASSO, the largest creditor of student loans in Japan. According to JASSO, over 38 percent of students attending four-year colleges borrow money from JASSO to pay for their tuition, books, housing, and other expenses.

Another factor contributing to the increase in the use of student loans is the shrinking support from the students’ parents. College students traditionally received assistance from their parents but the amount they receive is now on average a mere 700 Yen per day. Let’s not forget that Tokyo, where one out of every four students in Japan lives, is one of the most expensive cities in the world. To make up the difference, they need to have a part-time job and borrow money from JASSO with interest of up to 3% per year.

It would not be such a big social issue if those students actually repaid their loans.  They cannot, whether they think it is important to repay student loans or not, repay if they do not have a permanent job or be on unemployment, which is exactly what is happening. More than 40% of those in ages 15-24 are being hired as temporary workers, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Most temporary workers work full time just like their counterparts but their wages are kept extremely low to the point where they need to work two or even three jobs. And their employment is so unstable that there is always a chance their contracts do not be renewed.

If one cannot repay his loans and becomes three months behind on his monthly payment, JASSO would have his name listed on the so-called blacklist and the information will stay on the list until five years after the last monthly payment is made. If he becomes nine months behind, JASSO will exercise its right by taking the matter to court. In 2015 alone, the JASSO annual report shows that more than 20,000 were blacklisted and 8,700 were sued by JASSO, compared to 4,500 and 7,400 respectively in 2010.

And it is not just the young who face tough conditions. JASSO requires a student to come up with not only one but two sureties to borrow money from them, meaning that a parent and most of the time an uncle or a grandfather would be bonded into this debt. If it becomes impossible for a student to repay his loan, the creditor would simply ask his sureties to compensate for it, with a five percent per year delinquent charge on top of the original amount. JASSO does not hesitate to sue co-signers as well. The only way for a borrower or a cosigner to get away with this debt is to declare bankruptcy, which is exactly what is happening.

Students in only a handful of developed countries experience such hardships. Among the thirty-five members of the OECD, many do not even charge tuition from students. Out of countries that actually charge tuition, Japan is one of only three that have no scholarships or grants. The other two are Chile and South Korea. It is interesting that in Japan student loans are literally called “scholarships” even though they are loans and not grants. In fact, the Japanese government has not offered any type of grants or scholarships in the past.

In order to tackle this social issue, the Abe administration finally announced last year that it would implement a grant-type scholarship given to college students starting in April of 2017. This is the first time in Japanese history that a scholarship is implemented whether need-based or merit-based. However, even though more than 500,000 enter college every year, only 20,000 students or about 3 percent will benefit from this, and those receiving public assistance or living in orphanages are the only ones eligible to receive this scholarship. Also the maximum amount given to a student per year is set at 480,000 Yen, which is not even enough to cover a year’s worth of tuition.

Experts claim that although implementing this new scholarship was a step in the right direction, the contents pale in comparison to those of other OECD countries. Since the amount and the beneficiaries are extremely limited, it would not be enough to put a brake on the increasing number of student loan bankruptcies. Haruki Konno, a researcher and the representative of a nonprofit organization POSSE which obtained the bankruptcy data from JASSO, claims that the government needs to act quickly. “JASSO has systematically sued those who cannot repay, no matter the circumstances. I have seen people on public assistance and mothers living in women’s shelters getting sued because they could not pay their dues or they put their names on the paper so that their sons or nephews could have money to go to college. As the working conditions worsen and salaries decrease, colleges need to stop charging tuitions as some colleges in several European countries do to avoid such tragedies.”

日本語の要約:
今年から導入された給付型奨学金が創設されるまで、日本で「奨学金」と呼ばれているものは全て貸与型であり国際的には「教育ローン」に分類される借金です。家庭が貧困化し大学を卒業しても正社員に就けない人が増えていく中で、この「奨学金」を返済できない人が急増しています。返済困難になった若者や連帯保証人が、2015年度は16737人がブラックリストに載せられ、8713人が訴えられました。さらに、入手したJASSOの内部資料で、毎年600人~800人が自己破産していることが明らかになりました。

 

 

Japan’s Labor Ministry Names and Shames “Dark Companies” For Labor Abuse

Burakku kigyō (dark companies, exploitive enterprises) are probably the epitome of everything that’s wrong in Japan today. In 2013, it was among the top trending words of the year. They’re so much a part of the social misery in Japan that they even are incorporated into board games like The Hellish Game of LifeLast year between April and September, 6,659 businesses in Japan violated labor laws and were ordered to correct their illegal practices by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor.

Haruki Konno, head of POSSE, a group that helps young people with problems in their working environment, says black companies typically hire young employees and then force them to work large amounts of overtime without overtime pay. While specifics may vary from company to company, conditions are generally poor, and workers are subject to verbal abuse, sexual harassment and bullying.

“Outside of Japan, immigrants bear the brunt of such treatment,” Konno says . “In Japan, it’s young people. Originally the term was popular among college students looking for jobs. It was shorthand for a company that worked its employees into the ground.”

It was also a term the police used to refer to “front companies”––firms owned or operated by the yakuza, Japan’s mafia.

Konno says black companies are able to flourish due to existing conditions in the labor market. In 1985, regular employees accounted for 85 percent of the workforce. These days, the number is roughly 60 percent, a shift in job security caused by the easing of labor dispatch laws.

“Good jobs are hard to find and people are willing to put up with a lot before quitting,” Konno says.

It’s worth noting that black companies are not entirely a new phenomenon.

In July 2000, advertising giant Dentsu Inc. admitted it was responsible for the 1991 suicide of a 24-year-old employee who had become depressed due to overwork. Dentsu agreed to pay his family about ¥168 million in damages.  Last year, they were found responsible for the death of another young employee who was so overworked that she became depressed and jumped out of the company dorm on Christmas. Merry Christmas Dentsu–you’re synonymous with evil corporation now—try fixing that brand image.

The Japanese government has long promised to do something about this problem but under the reign of “Money Over Life” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, no one expected much. However, this month, much to the surprise of everyone, the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Labor published a list of 334 companies that had made repeated violations of labor laws. Of course, Dentsu, is on the list.

The full list in Japanese is here:

For the sake of non-native Japanese readers, Makoto Iwahashi, an intern at POSSE and a budding journalist, working with Japan Subculture Research Center put together a list of companies that are listed on the stock exchange and/or are affiliated with listed companies. Why? Because perhaps if investors have second thoughts about putting their money into companies that can’t uphold basic labor laws, maybe these companies might suddenly care about how they treat their workers. They may not be afraid of labor unions but they may be deathly afraid of their shareholders. Let’s hope.

If we have missed any companies, or notice mistakes in the chart, please let us know. We don’t have an army of abused workers at our disposal (苦笑い)—nor would we want them. Comments, suggestions, or corrections, please send to japansubculturesearchcenter@gmail.com

It is indeed a shame that so many Japanese companies don’t take care of their workers better than they do. That would be good business practices and the right thing to do.

Listed companies and affiliates singled out for labor law violations by Japan’s Ministry Of Health, Welfare, and Labor