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Toyota worker's suicide recognized as caused by boss's power harassment

A written response sent from Toyota Motor Corp. to the parents of an employee who took his own life after being subjected to power harassment by his superior. (Mainichi)

A local labor standards inspection office in central Japan has recognized that a Toyota Motor Corp. employee's suicide was caused by an adjustment disorder he developed after he was subjected to power harassment by his superior, ruling that his death was a workplace accident eligible for compensation, sources close to the case have revealed.

The 28-year-old employee took his own life in October 2017, his third year working for the global auto giant. He had once taken leave from work after being harassed by his superior with abusive language and in other forms on a daily basis, but when he returned to his job he was made to sit near that very boss. His family is poised to demand Toyota pay damages, claiming that the company failed to provide adequate consideration to their loved one.

According to an attorney for the man's family, he joined Toyota in April 2015 after completing a master's course in aerospace engineering at the University of Tokyo. Following training at auto dealerships and factories, he was assigned to a department tasked with designing vehicles at the automaker's headquarters in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan in March 2016. A separate superior at the time had highly praised him, saying, "I assigned him to the department thinking he was one of the best and brightest."

All too often, however, the man was rebuked by his immediate boss, who hurled such insults as "idiot" and "stupid" at him. One time, the boss even told him, "You'd better die." At other times, the superior would ask him, "Are you taking your task lightly?" and "You are not motivated to do your job, are you?" While being driven into a corner, the man kept taking notes of what his boss had told him. The worker took leave from July 2016 and was diagnosed as suffering from an adjustment disorder.

When he returned to work in October the same year, he was assigned to a different group from the one under the control of his boss. However, he was made to sit diagonally in front of his superior. The worker confided to his colleagues that he wanted to have his seat switched. When placed under pressure from work, his hands and legs shivered, and he would make mistakes with even simple tasks. Papers piled up on his desk, making him jitter. He told those close to him, "I'm reaching my breaking point," and "I feel like I'm a slave to this company." He even stated that he wanted to die.

About a year after he returned to his job, he took his own life at his company dormitory.

His family applied for worker's compensation in March this year, claiming that the superior's language and behavior deviated from the scope of operational guidance. The family argued that the man developed an adjustment disorder due to power harassment that denied his integrity and that he continued to suffer from traumatic symptoms.

According to his family, the harassment continued for several months, and the man's co-workers had heard the abusive boss yell at him, "Idiot" and "Die." The boss once summoned the man to a private room and asked him, "You aren't recording my statements, are you? Bring out your mobile phone."

When the man told the boss that he wanted to take leave from work, the superior replied, "You're threatening to take leave. Do you know what the consequences will be?"

During an in-house survey, the superior largely admitted to hurling abusive language at the man. Toyota accordingly acknowledged that the boss's words and actions caused the man to take leave from work, but ruled out the causal relationship between the harassment and his suicide.

Toyota had earlier told the man's family in writing, "It cannot be recognized that his suicide was induced by the words and actions of his superior" and that the company was not responsible for the case.

When a worker kills themselves after returning to work from leave, the case is said to be difficult to be recognized as eligible for worker's compensation unless the worker continued to see a doctor, as labor authorities deem that the worker had recovered from their illness.

While the Toyota employee had stopped visiting a medical institution, the local Toyota Labor Standards Inspection Office apparently concluded that the man had developed adjustment disorder due to the boss's harassment and that his symptoms had continued until his suicide. The recognition was made on Sept. 11.

Yoshihide Tachino, a lawyer representing the man's family, appreciated the labor standards office's ruling, saying, "It is of great significance that the causal relationship between the harassment and his suicide has been recognized in light of his symptoms after he returned to work."

The man's parents released a comment via the attorney, which stated, "We cannot bring ourselves to accept our child's death yet, after bringing him up with all our efforts. We want Toyota Motor Corp. to strive to improve its workplace environment, taking this recognition of worker's compensation as an opportunity to do so."

Three months before taking his own life, the man had emailed his parents, saying, "My company is like garbage. I'd rather die." The family is demanding that Toyota never again cause other employees to go through such a tragedy.

"We cannot forget about our son and our desire to see him gets stronger day by day," the parents told the Mainichi. The parents said their son was blessed with many friends and had devoted himself to his studies and sports since he was a student. "Had Toyota responded to the power harassment earlier, (his suicide) could have been prevented."

When reached for comment, a representative of Toyota stated, "We offer our heartfelt condolences. We'd like to take the labor standards office's decision seriously and strive further to manage our employees' health."

(Japanese original by Fumie Togami, City News Department)

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