On 4 November 2014, the Tokyo District Court awarded JPY 58 million to the aggrieved family members of a young employee who committed suicide. The Court found that the suicide was caused by power harassment and overworking. This is one of the highest awards for a claim of this kind.

What is Power Harassment?

“Power harassment” is a term used in Japan to describe bullying in the workplace. Under the traditional lifetime employment and seniority based system, bullying by senior colleagues used to be a culturally accepted part of the Japanese employment system. The concept of power harassment became widely recognised in 2012 when the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare issued a report that sought to address this problem. In the report, power harassment is defined as any kind of behaviour aimed at a person in the same workplace that, taking advantage of one’s superior position and going beyond the appropriate scope of duties, inflicts physical or psychological pain on that person or negatively impacts the working environment.

Whilst “power harassment” is not a cause of action in itself, an employee who has been power harassed may potentially bring a civil claim against the employer for failing in its duties to supervise and create a safe working environment.

Sun Challenge

On 4 November 2014, the Tokyo District Court found that the shop manager of a fast food chain ‘Suteki no Kuishinbo’ committed suicide as a result of being overworked and because of power harassment by his supervisor. The shop manager was 24 years old at the time of his death. The claim was brought by his bereaved parents against Sun Challenge (the company operating the fast food chain), the company president, and the supervisor concerned.

The Court found that for 2 years and 9 months prior to the shop manager’s death, he regularly worked over 12.5 hours a day, and was often verbally and physically abused by his supervisor: the supervisor often called him “useless” and an “idiot”, smacked him with a rice paddle, requested his attendance to non-work related entertainment activities, and gave him work orders on a rest day. The Court found that the shop manager only had 2 rest days for the 6 months immediately prior to his death, and that he was essentially being treated as an errand boy, despite his title.

The bereaved family members were awarded JPY 58 million by the Court.

The Trend

In recent years, Japanese Courts have been handing down higher and higher monetary awards for suicides caused by power harassment. In January 2014, the Nagoya District Court ordered a company and thecompany president to pay a total of JPY 54 million to an employee’s bereaved family for a power harassment claim involving violence and coercion for the employee to resign.

In light of this trend, it is important for employers not to treat complaints of power harassment lightly. They should promptly investigate into the complaints and create a work environment that is safe for all employees.