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 Life. Last 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.
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 email@example.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.
I was one of those people who wept over Hillary Clinton’s farewell “glass ceiling” speech, and not just because of how the election turned out. It seemed that however way you sliced it, women will have a hard time in the workplace and in modern society and that Clinton’s defeat was symptomatic of a huge, cancerous issue. Sob.
Here on the archipelago, we’re feeling the sharp edge of the blade known as overwork, afflicting both women AND men as they struggle to keep up with the increasingly ruthless culture of corporate Japan. The recent suicide of a 25-year old woman who worked for ad giant Dentsu is just the tip of the iceberg of a phenomenon known as “black companies,” or companies who enforce long working hours and excessive work ethics. This double duty can result in stress-related illnesses, severe depression and worse. In the case of this 25-year old, much worse. Just before her death, the texted her mother that she couldn’t stand work and she couldn’t bear life.
On the other hand, most Japanese – white collar or not, are well aware that clocking in over 100 hours of overtime a month is quite common, and so is not getting paid for that time. Dentsu was raided by Labor ministry investigators earlier this month, and they raked up evidence to show that workers were actually falsifying their overtime records to avoid having to bill the company and cause trouble. Such a mind-set can only exist in a country like Japan, whose finest moment came in the 1970s to 1980s, during the miraculous economic growth period. This was when trading companies gobbled up Manhattan property and car manufacturers kicked Detroit’s ass and a Harvard professor wrote a book called “Japan As No.1.”
“That was the rosiest time in post-war Japanese history,” writes Emiko Inagaki in her bestselling autobiography “Tamashiino Taisha (My Soul Wanted to Quit).” She adds that Japan’s current horrendous work culture that puzzles and even disgusts the rest of the world, is a holdover from that rosy time. “No one has come up with a dream to quite match the dream of the rapid growth era. Working hard and shopping with the money earned and then working hard some more and shopping some more – we loved it. We still love it, and refuse to look for an alternative.”
Inagaki is a former journalist for national news conglomerate Asahi Shimbun, and her book tells how she climbed up Asahi’s mercilessly patriarchal hierarchy rung by bloody rung. The media is the one place in the Japanese corporate world where a woman can even hope to compete with men in the same arena, and according to Inagaki she chose the profession for that very reason. A graduate from one of the nation’s top universities, Inagaki felt that she owed it to herself and her family, to become a financially independent individual. Other women of her generation were apt to work for a few years, get married and withdraw into the home. But for 3 decades, Inagaki plugged away at the job, moving from one department to another, one regional office to another. For the most part, it was a ride. In the book, she writes with loving tribute to the years she gave to Asahi, years that shaped her personality and cemented her resolve.
On the flip side, she was often depressed and prone to binge-shopping. She writes with comic flair of how, on every payday she would sail into her favorite boutiques and pick armloads of posh outfits that she subsequently never wore, how she was turned on by the gushing welcome she got from the salesgirls (“after all, I was an excellent customer!”), basking in the euphoria of buying just about anything she wanted. And it wasn’t just clothing. She loved getting drunk with colleagues and friends at expensive sushi restaurants. She loved riding cabs everywhere. And she was proud of being able to afford the rent on a designer condo when other women her age were struggling to pay for their kids’ school fees. Inagaki was living the Japanese Dream – work like crazy, spend accordingly and to hell with everything else.
At a certain point though, she had to ask herself if this was true happiness. The answer was an uneasy NO. And then Lehman Shock came along in 2008 and partially jolted her out of the earn-spend cycle. “But what really did it for me was 3.11,” she writes. “I vowed to stop spending so much on myself, and I especially wanted to cut down on utility bills.” Inagaki covered Fukushima’s nuclear meltdown, and witnessed first hand the potential side effects of unbridled economic progress. “The Japanese were apt to think that working and earning was the most important priority. But 3.11 showed us that there’s more to life than that, and the revelation can come at any time.” Inagaki decided to use as little electricity as possible, just as a personal experiment. “I would come home, and not turn on the light switch and wait until my eyes got used to the dark.” Pretty soon, she could navigate her way around her home with no lights at all. “I thought: so this is what being truly independent is all about.”
Gradually, the idea dawned on Inagaki that she was free to quit the company. “I had been working for Asahi for 30 years. The idea of leaving scared me a little but more than that, I was exhilarated. Dare I do it? Would I be able to survive?” At this point, Inagaki was 50 years old and single, with nothing to her name but a position in a highly respected company. To cut herself off from this veritable life support system, in a country renowned for discrimination of women (especially unemployed single women) could spell disaster. She wasn’t going out there completely unequipped. Prior to her leaving Asahi, Inagaki had her hair done – in a stylish afro. And she had already weaned herself off the expensive lifestyle and started looking for a smaller, older, much cheaper apartment. She was KonMariing her stuff as well. Out went the expensive, unworn outfits. The designer furniture and decor items. One by one, she pared herself down and came to recognize who she really was, shorn of the invisible corporate armor that had both protected and incarcerated her.
Inagaki now works as an occasional TV commentator and takes on freelance writing assignments. The latter as she writes in the book, pays so little it took her breath away. Back in Asahi, she had been convinced that professional writing was a fairly lucrative gig, but the reality of being an independent freelancer has hit her hard. Still, with no dependants and a cheerful disposition, she can treat her new life as one on-going adventure. She cooks her own food, hand washes her laundry, has no A/C and generally keeps expenses down to about 100,000 yen a month. To her surprise and delight, she is suddenly enormously popular with men of all ages. “Everyone wants to talk to me. The other day, a young photographer asked to take my picture.” She attributes it to the afro and her new, carefree aura. “If there’s any hope for us, it’s to believe that it’s okay to live as an individual, to liberate yourself from working for a company.” With so many Japanese convinced that life begins and ends in an office, her message is vital – a shining light glimpsed at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
Ryu Honma, author of Dentsu and the Nuclear Coverage (電通と原発の報道) spoke at the FCCJ a few weeks ago and his explanation of how Japan’s powerful advertising agencies, “the fifth estate”, stifled unfavorable coverage of nuclear power was eye-opening.
The collusive role between Japan’s major advertising agencies, the media, and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)–one of the largest advertisers in Kanto while having a monopoly on electric power—has been blamed for allowing TEPCO to get away with unsafe practices and malfeasance for years. Some have argued that Japan’s major media, bloated on a diet of TEPCO advertising dollars, failed to fulfill their role as monitor and critic of the nuclear industry. A recently published book about Dentsu (電通）Japan’s largest advertising agency and their impact on Japan’s reporting on nuclear power was released this year and stirred up controversy. However, except for one or two magazines, just like the book, TEPCO/The Dark Empire東京電力：帝国の暗黒–the book has been ignored by the major media outlets it criticizes.
Dentsu and Hakuhodo intervene in media reporting
Ryu Honma worked in the megalithic Japanese advertising agency, Hakuhodo, for eighteen years in the sales and marketing department. Having been inside the industry, he knows the endemic social problems of the advertisement system in Japan and its consequences on the Japanese mainstream media reporting. He is one more author to denounce the corrupted Japanese mainstream media reporting.
What is an advertising agency?
Everyone believes they know the answer to this but let’s define it here. An advertising agency provides a service in creating, promoting and fixing advertising for its clients. An advertising agency is supposed to be independent from its client and offers services to help them sell their product or achieve better brand recognition.
The world’s biggest ad agency is Dentsu (Japan), with a total revenue of 22,000 million US $. The second listed in the world ranking is Omnicom Group, with its headquarters in New York, with 13,900 million US $ in revenue. Hakuhodo, is Japan’s second most powerful ad agency, and number six in the world ranking.
In his book “Dentsu and the Nuclear Coverage,” Ryu Honma offers a clear insight about the great influence Dentsu and Hakuhodo have had on the media coverage of Japan’s nuclear power plant safety issues.
After research made on the media coverage of the 3.11 Fukushima nuclear accident, Ryu Honma asserts in his book, that over the past year, “There was very little mention in public about the responsibility of the media and the advertising agencies.”
Japan Subculture Research Center also reported the author and investigative journalist Katsunobu Onda, (the man who fought TEPCO), who exposed the truth about the deficiency of the reactors and the pipes that TEPCO has been using for decades. Onda’s book “Tokyo Denryoku: Teikoku No Ankoku”, (“TEPCO: the Dark Empire”), told the history of accidents and cover-ups at TEPCO in great detail. Issued in 2007 by his publisher Nanatsumori Shokan, it was mostly ignored and sold only 4,000 copies. It was reissued in April 2011 and sold 20,000 copies this time.
More than ten years ago, when Ryu Honma was still working for Hakuhodo, he was also a member of an anti nuclear non profit organization called Citizens’ Nuclear Power Information Center. He said in a press conference in Tokyo on October 16th 2012, that he was probably the only member from Hakuhodo to belong to that group at the time.
Because he was inclined to stand against nuclear energy, he said he was devastated when Japan’s biggest nuclear accident took place last year on 3.11, in Fukushima. He said he immediately followed the reporting of the accident, “However, the major Japanese media did not focus on the dangers of such accident,” he said. Whenever a problematic incident or accident occurred within a nuclear power plant, the advertising agencies would immediately take action. “What action did the agencies take? They made very direct requests to the media not to report any such news. Once a newspaper would receive such yousei, (要請) or request, it would deliberate whether it would make some adjustment on how much reporting it would make of the incident.”
Criteria for reporting news in Japan is related to money
Ryu Honma said that “The criteria for reporting news in Japan is directly related to the amount of advertising revenue that the media receives.” (The situation does not apply only to TEPCO and the nuclear industry.) This attitude of “taking care” of the client is also seen on a daily basis in Japan for major clients of advertising agencies, he added. For example, when Toyota had many problems with recalls of its vehicles, until the president of Toyota was asked to speak in front of the United States Congress, there was very little media coverage of the incident in Japan. Toyota is one of the largest sponsors of the media in Japan, and the media did not want to be put in a position where it might lose major advertising revenue.
“When such request is made to the media to hold down on a story, the threat is that the advertising revenues might be cut.” Honma explained. Obectively, it means that whenever a company experiences a negative incident, the information would be immediately reported to the advertisement agencies and the people at the agencies understand that this should not be reported in some certain ways. Therefore the ad agency gets in touch with the media, the TV stations and newspapers and generally talks with the sales department. In an ad agency, there are the sales department (営業部-eigyobu） and the news departments (報道部/houdoubu). Although they are separate entities, they collude when important action needs to be taken. The function of the news department in major advertising agencies appears to be to work on real news agencies to persuade them to cover the firm’s advertisers favorably or keep criticism at a minimum.
“There is a tendency to ‘kill’ negative stories”
The media and the advertising agencies have been involved in providing good services to important clients for so many years that their ability to make a judgment of right and wrong have become numbed, Honma explained at the press conference. As a result, he said “There is a tendency to kill negative stories,” in this case, with regarding nuclear power plants.
Then why “Denpaku,” the term referring to Dentsu and Hakuhodo, the two mega companies, can make such request over the media to give less detail on reporting some incidents? “These two companies together account for about 70 percent of all the advertising revenues and advertising expenses in Japan,” according to Honma. Dentsu, has nearly 50 percent of all the advertising revenues in Japan.) It is then natural that the media feel they can be forced to lose big source of revenue if they do not heed the All-Powerful Voice of Dentsu. “That’s why it is understandable that excessive self-restraint in their reporting activities occur,” Honma explained. The answer to whether Dentsu makes efforts to promote nuclear energy is not simple. Among the major advertising agencies, only Dentsu belongs to the JAIF (Japan Atomic Industrial Forum Incorporated). However, it did not mean that there was a kind of control division within Dentsu that told the company that they had to promote nuclear power. In both Hakuhodo and Denstu, nuclear power promotional advertisement could be run by un-powerful small divisions in charge of looking after the interests of nuclear power plants. The members in these divisions were not people burning with passion to promote nuclear energy, according to Honma, “They were simply following the wishes of their clients.” He added that if people in those divisions were interviewed about their responsibility in the whole process, they would probably respond that they do not feel responsible for the nuclear accident of Fukushima.
Advertising agencies, a Fifth Estate?
Ryu Honma explained that this is an example of something “uniquely Japanese,” which is “no sense of responsibility held by people in the advertising agencies, who are simply willing to satisfy their electric power plants clients, and protecting their own interests only.” The same can be said about the media who wanted to protect their own interests over the interests of the public; the media is happen to handcuff and gag themselves, most of the time.
It is generally considered that the media is the Fourth Estate. Their primary function is to monitor and observe the activities of the other great powers in society, however some people have pointed out that in Japan, the Fourth Estate serves a different purpose, they do not monitor authorities, they monitor the citizens.
Ryu Honma, after his experience working for 18 years in an advertising agency in Japan, said that he believed that they were a “Fifth Estate,” a huge power that does not recognize how influential they are, “Their only concern is not to make a moral judgment but to create more money.” He concluded. Japan’s Fifth Estate keeps a check on the Fourth Estate.
This year, TEPCO has been nationalized and the will of the Japanese people has changed tremendously with the anti nuclear movement, which is trying to eradicate dependence on nuclear power in Japan. However, Ryu Honma insisted on the fact that there have been no examination about the responsibility of the advertising agencies, and no efforts within the agencies themselves to reflect upon their role in this great accident.
And the influence of the “nuclear village,” centered around the Denjiren, or Federation of the Electric Power Companies, have remained unchanged at the moment.
The mainstream media are still afraid of losing the support of Denstu and Hakuhodo. Therefore the problems raised by the nuclear industry are not presented to the general public by the media, he insists.
Before 3.11, Dentsu and Hakuhodo and other advertising agencies had a system in place in regard to dealing with the media. They made sure that the media understood that they could not do some kind of negative reporting against the interests of their clients.
TV Asahi Newscaster was squeezed over nuclear power coverage and discussion
For example, in debates about nuclear power plants broadcasted by TV Asahi in late March 2011, guest speakers were mostly very much in favor of nuclear power plants, even few weeks after the nuclear accident of on March 11, 2011. According to Ryu Honma, Dentsu pushed the programmers and producers to bring together pro-nuclear speakers.
Also, for the first anniversary of the nuclear accident this year, a newscaster of Hodo Station, at TV Asahi, Ichiro Furutachi, has mentioned on air that he had been strongly pressured not to put together a special feature program about the first anniversary of the nuclear power plant accident. Again, for this TV program, most of the clients, who run advertisements and commercials on the program were pulled together by Dentsu, Honma said. The pressure on Ichiro Furutachi was emphasized when he was told that if he continues to run anti-nuclear power comments on his program, he would be forced to step down.
It says much about Japan that to even speak the truth about certain taboos, such as the nuclear industry, you have to first shield yourself by explaining how much pressure there is to not tell the truth in the first place.