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Editorial: Dentsu trial chance for serious Japan Inc. soul-searching on overwork crisis

Japanese society is increasingly concerned with the problem of overwork, and it seems likely the Tokyo Summary Court was acutely aware of the public gaze when it ruled the Labor Standards Act violation case against Dentsu Inc. over the 2015 overwork-induced suicide of an employee must be heard in a regular criminal trial.

Prosecutors filed a summary indictment against Dentsu -- one of the world's largest advertising companies -- and had planned to pursue the case in a summary trial, where proceedings are held behind closed doors. However, the court ruled that prosecutors were treating the case inappropriately, and ordered that Dentsu be tried as a corporation in a regular trial, where proceedings are public.

As this will be a public trial, not only must the prosecution reveal all its evidence against the accused, but it will call Dentsu representatives to the stand for questioning. Thus, details of the firm's labor management and illegal overtime practices that lie behind the death of 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi may very well be revealed to the Japanese public. We believe the summary court made the right choice.

Takahashi worked 105 hours of overtime per month, far beyond the "overwork death danger line" of 80 hours. This fact was confirmed by the Mita Labor Standards Inspection Office in Tokyo when it ruled in 2016 that Takahashi's suicide was caused by overwork. Regional labor bureaus searched not only Dentsu's Tokyo headquarters, but also its branches in Osaka and other parts of Japan, as investigators sought to build a complete picture of illegal overtime at the prestigious company.

The 1991 suicide of a second-year Dentsu employee was also ruled as overwork-induced, and local labor standards inspection offices had since hit Dentsu with official demands to cut its excessive work hours on no less than three occasions, in 2010, 2014 and 2015. Dentsu, however, took little action to improve working conditions. Neither the company's character nor the thinking of the firm's executives changed, and for that reason it is necessary to have the causes of Takahashi's death revealed at a public trial.

The prosecution decided not to indict Takahashi's bosses as it could not confirm they had forced her to work such long hours, and therefore there was no bad intent on the part of Dentsu managers themselves. However, regarding Dentsu as a corporation, prosecutors decided that its system for preventing excessive overtime was insufficient, and was thus criminally liable.

The move to file a summary indictment against Dentsu was made in line with past labor law violation cases. However, there is a growing belief in society that the overwork problem can no longer be neglected, and the attitude of the courts has shifted accordingly. Indeed, already this year summary indictments for labor offence cases investigated by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's special overwork countermeasures team were ruled "inappropriate."

It is a sad fact that many companies across Japan still expect their staff to work unlawfully long hours as a matter of course. To stop companies from doing this, it is necessary to force them to comply completely with labor laws. The Dentsu trial over Takahashi's suicide is a chance for firms across the country to rethink and revamp their most deeply rooted "common sense" assumptions.

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