A complete vindication, in the land of Karoshi

By Misako Hida *

“I’m so touched by this overall victory. This is what I’ve waited such a long time for. My son’s face in death has always haunted me. I have spent barely a day without recalling that face since he took his own life a decade ago. Even a single day…”

Noriko Uendan, 60, revealed her thoughts soon after Judge Hiroshi Tsuzuki handed down a ruling favoring her, the plaintiff in a work-related death trial before the Tokyo High Court on July 28. Her son, Yuji Uendan, killed himself in spring of 1999 at the age of 23, in the depths of depression caused by overwork.

“I’ve been consumed with the sole desire to do something for him. I am really glad to have completely won the case. This has made having waited for the verdict so many years worthwhile,” Noriko added.

The young man was once employed by the manufacturing contractor Nextar (currently known as Atest) and worked on a temporary basis for his employer’s client, Nikon, the international Japanese camera and optical equipment maker.

Noriko successfully brought a lawsuit against both Yuji’s employer and Nikon, attempting to obtain financial compensation totaling 140 million yen. The initial court ruling, however, granted a fraction of that sum. On July 28, the Tokyo High Court ruled that both companies had to pay a total of 70.58 million yen. This was the second consecutive victory for the plaintiff after the Tokyo District Court ruling. According to a lawyer for the plaintiff, Mr. Hiroshi Kawahito, who serves as Secretary-General of the National Defense Council for Victims of Karoshi, this was the first time that a Japanese High Court ruled on a case claiming a temporary worker’s suicide from overwork.

Mr. Uendan killed himself in March in 1999, the result of depression caused by his work at a Nikon factory in Kumagaya City. On a whiteboard in the apartment where Yuji was living alone, he left the scribbled note: “the time I spent has been wasted.” For nearly 16 months the late Mr. Uendan had worked as an inspector of semiconductor production equipment in a windowless room, dressed from head to toe in a white, dust-free garment. Hours of overtime, consecutive work days without time off, and additional business trips caused his drastic weight loss. He complained, in his final days, of having completely lost his sense of taste.

It was in a groundbreaking decision that a Tokyo District Court in March of 2005 recognized his suicide from overwork for the first time. It ruled it illegal for temporary workers to be forced to work as long as full-time employees, because this practice mitigates the structured liability of employers. Also, although it is very common for manufacturing contractors to supply their clients with employees as temporary staff, this is prohibited under the Worker Dispatch Law. However, in 2004 the law was amended for the manufacturing sector, and rulings favorable to corporations have been increasing in labor cases since.

Social pressures continue to account heavily for loss of life in Japan. Just one day before the court’s decision, the National Police Agency (NPA) released data showing that 17,076 people took their own lives in the first half of 2009, putting this year in line to becoming the worst on record.

Before the verdict was announced, Noriko didn’t talk much, offering just a few words: “I have nothing to regret, whatever the judge decides. I’ve tried my hardest to state everything.” She attended the court carrying nitroglycerin pills in her handbag, just in case of an attack of angina, from which she’s suffered since her son’s death.

 “At the very moment that I heard the verdict, Yuji’s face appeared before me in my mind, I was overwhelmed by a strong desire to cry out loud. I felt like I was dragged back into the very moment on that day. It was so heartbreaking….” she said.

Even the joy of sweeping victory cannot overcome her deepest tragedy.

 

(translated from Mainichi Newspaper’s Weekly Magazine, Sunday Mainichi, August 16, 2009 – Some information added and altered with the original Japanese story)

* Misako Hida won the first edition of ILO Media for labour rights prize in 2008 with the article ‘The Land of Karoshi’

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