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Yukimi Takahashi, the mother of Matsuri Takahashi, speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Oct. 6. (Photo by Rie Ishii)
Japan-Update

Japan's Dentsu gets token $4,400 fine for excessive overtime

Employee's suicide puts focus on light penalties for labor violations

TOKYO -- A year after a mother spoke out about her daughter's suicide following overwork at advertising agency Dentsu, a Tokyo court has fined the company 500,000 yen ($4,400). 

The Tokyo Summary Court's decision on Friday is a rare example of a Japanese company being held accountable for labor violations, though the token punishment is likely to raise eyebrows. 

Last October, Yukimi Takahashi went public about the death of her daughter, Matsuri, in December 2015. Dentsu had allegedly forced the 24-year-old and three other employees to work overtime beyond legal limits. The ruling concerns this violation -- not Matsuri's death itself.

The court's ruling is a "historic" event, according to Hiroshi Kawahito, Takahashi's lawyer, who has long worked on cases involving death from overwork -- known as karoshi in Japan. "It is very meaningful that a company has been punished," he told reporters on Friday. "Dentsu's crime has been confirmed."

"I recognize the significance of the responsibility and feel deep regret," Dentsu President Toshihiro Yamamoto told reporters after the ruling. "We apologize [to Matsuri Takahashi] by pledging that we will eliminate overwork."

Dentsu President Toshihiro Yamamoto bows at a news conference in Tokyo on Oct. 6. (Photo by Kaisuke Ota)

Takahashi's suicide triggered nationwide soul-searching over the country's work culture, infamous for long hours and low productivity.

The government is looking into work reforms, including a stricter limit on overtime, while some private companies have taken it upon themselves to introduce a minimum interval between leaving the office and coming back again.

Yet these efforts have not reduced the number of karoshi cases. A white paper published on Friday puts the number at 191 for the year ended in March, up from 189 the previous year.

Yoshimasa Obayashi, a Tokyo-based attorney who handles karoshi, told the Nikkei Asian Review that his case load has not declined "at all." In the past year, he said he dealt with cases ranging from a medical doctor to a driver.

On Wednesday, Japanese broadcaster NHK disclosed the death of a female journalist from overwork in July 2013. According to NHK, 31-year-old Miwa Sado died of heart failure at home. She had been covering the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and worked 159 extra hours in the month before her death, which was recognized as a karoshi case in 2014.

"We take it very seriously," NHK President Ryoichi Ueda told a news conference on Thursday. "We will make efforts to secure reporters' health by improving their work style."

NHK said it kept the case private out of respect for the family's wishes.

As for the Dentsu case, it is likely to draw attention to the insubstantial punishments that come with labor violations.

"From an ordinary person's perspective, it is questionable to charge a major company like Dentsu just 500,000 yen," Kawahito said, adding that the case could entail a maximum fine of 1.2 million yen. Dentsu's net profit came to 83 billion yen last year.

"Regarding the fine of 500,000 yen, I hope labor laws will be revised to allow for harsher penalties" in cases involving death, said Yukimi Takahashi, who met reporters with Kawahito.

Obayashi pointed out that light punishments "won't deter companies from repeating the same practices."

Dentsu's Yamamoto said the company will "definitely complete working style reforms." But Yukimi Takahashi expressed skepticism, noting that the agency had other karoshi cases before her daughter.

"I would like society to continue to monitor Dentsu," Takahashi said. "I will."

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