Advertising Giant Dentsu Answers to Overwork Suicide, Promises Reforms

The head of a Japanese advertising giant was in court on Friday, answering to charges of illegal labor practices. This follows the high-profile death of a new employee who killed herself after working excessive overtime hours.

After a much anticipated 1-day trial at the Tokyo Summary Court, the president of advertising firm Dentsu spoke to the media.

"I felt deeply responsible for losing the precious life of an employee. I realized the graveness of the matter as I stood in court," said Toshihiro Yamamoto.

Yamamoto has admitted to, and apologized for, allegations that his company forced 4 of its employees to work illegally long hours.

One of them, 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi, committed suicide in 2015.

Before taking her life, Takahashi told her mother she was only sleeping 10 hours a week because of overwork.

She also tweeted that she had lost all feelings except for the wish to sleep.

Takahashi's suicide cast light on the culture of excessive overtime at the company, and within Japan which even has a term for death from overwork: "karoshi."

Her death sparked an outcry and calls for change.

On Friday, Dentsu President Yamamoto spoke in court as a representative of the firm. He said he used to believe that long hours spent on the job meant the company could offer better service to its clients. But he said he now believes that ensuring both the physical and mental fitness of employees is what improves service. He added his company is working towards that goal.

Prosecutors have demanded a fine of about 4,500 dollars for failing to correct illegal labor practices pointed out by inspectors 3 years ago.

After the hearing, Takahashi's mother told reporters she'll keep a close eye on whether the company fixes its problems.

"I was deeply moved that the violation was verified in court," said Yukimi Takahashi. "But I can't immediately trust the president's words to implement a change."

The next step will be for the judge to decide on whether the court will issue a fine. The ruling is expected early next month.

"I've lost all my emotions, except for a desire to sleep."

Matsuri Takahashi began working for Dentsu in April, 2015, right after graduating from university. She died on December 25th that year, just 9 months after she joined the leading Japanese advertising firm.

Takahashi graduated from high school in Shizuoka Prefecture and enrolled in the literature department of The University of Tokyo in 2010. During her university days, she majored in philosophy and went to China on an exchange program. Interested in the media industry, she also worked part-time at a weekly magazine, and took part in streaming videos online.

When Dentsu offered her a job, she reportedly told her mother that she wanted to create online content for the top Japanese firm. She also wanted to make a contribution to society by achieving her full potential.

Takahashi began working for an online advertisement section after joining the firm. By the time her employment became official in October, she was already working long overtime hours. Takahashi told her mother that she had never imagined that the work would be so hard, and that she was only sleeping 10 hours a week.

In October, she tweeted: "I've lost all my emotions, except for a desire to sleep." In December, just before she took her life, she posted another tweet saying: "I wonder if there is any point at all in surviving through such stressful days, if all I want is to die." She also said that she wondered if dying may be happier than living.

On the morning of December 25th, 2015, Takahashi sent a message to her mother before killing herself. Her message read:

"Dear beloved Mom. You are so important to me. Good-bye and thank you. Life, work and everything is just unbearable. Please do not blame yourself because you are the best mother."

Repeatedly Warned for Poor Working Conditions

At the opening session on the trial, Dentsu President Yamamoto repeatedly apologized for Takahashi's death, as a representative of the company.

At about 10:30 AM on Friday, Yamamoto entered the Tokyo Summery Court, accompanied by 4 lawyers. The session began 5 minutes earlier than scheduled at 11:00 AM. Takahashi's mother sat in the front row.

At the beginning of the session, Yamamoto bowed toward the victim's mother and took the witness stand. When he admitted to the charges filed against the company, Mrs.Takahashi was looking directly at the stand.

During the session, prosecutors quoted Takahashi's colleagues as saying that she was forced to do unpaid overtime work, and that her supervisors were aware of the situation. They also revealed the contents of her e-mail messages to her mother in which she said she wanted to quit because the work was too hard, and that she had failed in another suicide attempt.

For his part, Yamamoto said officials from a labor standards inspection office had repeatedly warned the firm to improve its working conditions. He said the firm bears heavy responsibility for the loss of the precious life.

Asked about Dentsu's working environment, Yamamoto said there was a common belief in the company that the longer one works, the more he or she responds to the needs of the clients.

Yamamoto also said there was a contradiction within the firm between the concept of time management and improving the quality of its services. His comments seemed to imply that Dentsu's corporate culture was behind the illegal overwork.

Mrs.Takahashi was taking notes of Yamamoto's explanations, while listening intently to him.

At the end of the session, Yamamoto again offered an apology for the firm's improper labor management.

The session ended in an hour. Yamamoto again bowed toward Takahashi's mother, before leaving the court room.

Dentsu President Pledges Fundamental Reforms

Yamamoto told reporters after the opening session that reforms must not be temporary, but fundamental and sustainable, and that both the way work is done and the way the company thinks need to change.

Yamamoto said he is determined to complete these reforms by the end of next year, adding that this would be his biggest challenge as president.

Takahashi's mother takes a close look at the company's efforts.

Takahashi's mother told reporters after the trial that she had mixed emotions about the fact that Dentsu's years of forcing employees to work illegally long hours had been revealed at the trial. She described it as moving.

She added that she cannot fully believe what the Dentsu President had said. She said she wants Yamamoto and all of Dentsu's employees to make determined efforts to reform the company's work culture. She said she will continue observing the company's efforts.

Takahashi also said she felt the prosecutors had spoken on her behalf when they said her daughter died because of Dentsu's lax management, and recognized the excessive working hours.

She also said no matter how much Yamamoto apologizes, her daughter would never come back.

Takahashi attended the press conference with a photograph of her daughter taken in the United States while on a trip there before she started working for Dentsu.

She said she really wished her daughter was still alive and the company had made it possible for her to be able to work to her fullest while she was still alive.

Takahashi's lawyer Hiroshi Kawahito said the trial let businesses and society as a whole know of the significance of violating the labor standard law.

He also said it was meaningful that the president of a leading company such as Dentsu appeared in court and answered questions as a defendant. He said he thinks this will have a deterrent effect on future violations of the law.

Labor Bureau special team investigates companies

The investigation into Dentsu's labor law violations was conducted by a special team set up at the Tokyo Labor Bureau.

Special teams were formed in April 2015 at labor bureaus in Tokyo and Osaka to investigate major companies that are influential.

A total of 16 labor law inspectors in Tokyo and Osaka investigate companies for illegal working hours. They give companies administrative guidance when violations are found, or send papers to prosecutors for the more serious cases.

In the case of Dentsu, inspectors checked the number of hours employees worked over an 18-month period starting from April 2015 when Matsuri Takahashi started at the company. Inspectors also questioned the company president and dozens of other employees on a voluntary basis.

Ever since the special investigative teams have been set up, papers have been sent to prosecutors on Dentsu and 6 other companies. Trials have been held related to Dentsu and 2 other companies. Fines of about 4,500 dollars were issued to 2 other companies.

Experts say the special teams are helping deter illegally long work hours, but others point out they can only investigate a small number of companies since there is a limited number of inspectors.