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News Navigator: What's new about Japan's law to prevent workplace harassment?

Yukimi Takahashi, sitting next to a framed picture of her deceased daughter Matsuri, speaks at a news conference in Tokyo on Oct. 7, 2016. (Mainichi)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the law to prevent harassment at workplaces, which already applies to big firms and will be applied to all companies in Japan starting this April.

    Question: Is there a law in Japan banning workplace harassment?

    Answer: Yes, there is. It is called the "Act on Comprehensively Advancing Labor Measures, and Stabilizing the Employment of Workers, and Enriching Workers' Vocational Lives." Its revised version, known as the power harassment prevention law, was enacted in 2019 to promote work-style reform.

    Q: What was the content of the revision?

    A: The revised law defined what constituted "power harassment" for the first time, and obligated companies to take measures to prevent it, such as by setting up consultation desks. Large corporations became subject to the new measures in June 2020. The law will also be applied to small- and medium-sized businesses starting on April 1.

    Q: Why has this law become necessary?

    A: The 2015 suicide of Matsuri Takahashi, then 24-year-old new employee of Japanese advertising agency giant Dentsu Inc., was a big trigger. She was apparently repeatedly subjected to harassment from her boss in addition to illegal long working hours. Power harassment has become a social problem, with a spate of cases in which young employees at other companies have killed themselves or in which those who developed depression due to harassment have been granted workers' compensation.

    Q: How common is workplace power harassment?

    A: According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, labor bureaus across Japan received 79,190 consultations about "bullying and harassment" in fiscal 2020 -- the most common type of work-related consultation. There have been cases in which victims have filed civil lawsuits against employers or their superiors, seeking compensation for damages. Companies as well as their employees can end up suffering significant damage if they are negligent in their response to power harassment.

    Q: What is power harassment, exactly?

    A: The prevention law defines power harassment as treatment meeting three conditions: 1) It is based on a workplace relationship between someone in a superior position and another person; 2) It exceeds the scope necessary and reasonable in the course of business; and 3) It damages the working environment of employees.

    This file photo shows a building housing Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Tokyo. (Mainichi)

    Q: What constitutes a "superior position"?

    A: In a company setting, it is commonly the position of a boss above subordinates. But depending on levels of knowledge and experience at work, power harassment can occur in other relationships, such as between colleagues and from subordinates to bosses.

    Q: How are "workplaces" and "workers" defined in terms of power harassment?

    A: "Workplaces" can include the locations of drinking functions and business dinners with clients held during off-duty hours, business trip locations, and even vehicles carrying workers from one place to another. "Workers" include part-timers and non-regular workers such as contracted employees in addition to permanent employees.

    Q: What kind of behavior is considered power harassment?

    A: The labor ministry's guidelines classify it into six types: physical violence, psychological aggression, isolation at work, unreasonable demands, underemployment, and personal violations.

    The guidelines also show examples that are not considered power harassment. For instance, strongly reprimanding someone who repeats behavior that breaks social rules, such as coming in late, and assigning a slightly high-level task to a subordinate to train them are not harassment. However, the line between job-related instruction and power harassment is vague. The ministry is asking companies to respond expansively to consultation requests due to the possibility that cases may be judged differently depending on the circumstances.

    Q: What measures should businesses take to prevent power harassment?

    A: The law demands that firms take such measures as clarifying their policy to prohibit power harassment and notifying employees about the importance of preventive measures, and creating clauses about the ban and punishment of power harassment in work regulations, as well as making efforts to understand the actual situation by setting up a consultation desk, among other means.

    Q: What happens if it has actually occurred?

    A: It is important to confirm the facts as early as possible, punish the person who is accused of having committed power harassment, and take measures to prevent a recurrence. It is also necessary to protect the privacy of people who come forward about it and make sure they will not suffer detrimental treatment such as dismissal just because they spoke up.

    Q: With these measures, will power harassment be eliminated?

    A: Even if a company does not take measures to prevent harassment, there is no penalty, and there are no legal provisions banning power harassment. The International Labor Organization defined harassment as "behaviors and practices that are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm" and adopted a convention to legally ban it in 2019, but Japan has not ratified it. While harassment prevention is a global trend, it has been pointed out that Japan's response is lagging behind other parts of the world.

    (Japanese original by Satoko Nakagawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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