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

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

Yukimi Takahashi, the mother of former Dentsu employee Matsuri Takahashi, speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Oct. 6. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

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 ($4,438).

Unlike most labor violation cases in Japan, this case went to a full trial, with the Tokyo Summary Court reaching its decision on Oct. 6. The token punishment, however, 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 after the ruling. "Dentsu's crime has been confirmed."

"I recognize the significance of this responsibility and feel deep regret," Dentsu President Toshihiro Yamamoto told reporters the same day. "In apology [to Matsuri Takahashi], we pledge that we will eliminate overwork."

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

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

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 Oct. 6 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-related cases, 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 Oct. 4, 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 case of karoshi in 2014.

"We take this very seriously," NHK President Ryoichi Ueda told a news conference on Oct. 5. "We will make efforts to secure reporters' health by improving their working style."

NHK said it had kept the case under wraps in accordance with the family's wishes.

As for the Dentsu case, it is likely to draw attention to the light punishments often handed out for labor violations.

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

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

Light punishments, Obayashi said, "won't deter companies from repeating the same practices."

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

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

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