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Tokyo Prosecutors Send Dentsu Case to Court After Employee's Suicide

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Prosecutors in Tokyo are sending a case against Dentsu Inc. to court after the 2015 suicide of a young employee who had complained about overwork and exhaustion, according to local newspaper reports. But individual Dentsu executives were not indicted in the case, which led to reforms and soul-searching about long hours and tough working conditions at the ad giant's Japanese operations and at the country's companies in general.

Yukimi Takahashi, whose daughter Matsuri killed herself in 2015 due to overwork, speaks to reporters about the agreement she reached with Dentsu Inc. on January 20, 2017 in Tokyo.
Yukimi Takahashi, whose daughter Matsuri killed herself in 2015 due to overwork, speaks to reporters about the agreement she reached with Dentsu Inc. on January 20, 2017 in Tokyo. Credit: Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office has sent Dentsu's case to the city's summary court on the charge that it had employees doing illegal overtime, The Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported. In Japan, summary courts hear cases involving fines or lighter punishments; reports said the court would decide whether to fine Dentsu.

Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old Dentsu recruit in Japan, jumped from a window of her corporate dormitory in December 2015. She had complained on Twitter about how much she was working and how tired she was. Labor inspectors deemed her suicide a case of "karoshi," a Japanese term that means "death from overwork."

Takahashi's death had major repercussions for Tokyo-based Dentsu, which was the world's fifth-biggest agency company by revenue in 2016, according to Ad Age's Datacenter. Then-CEO Tadashi Ishii eventually stepped down, and the company took steps to cut down overwork at its Japan offices, such as turning off office lights every night at 10 p.m.

A Dentsu spokesman shared a statement Friday saying "we will move forward with an array of initiatives under our plan, including enhancing the working environment, reforming business processes and cultivating human resources." The statement said those moves would "eliminate long working hours and ensure that our operations in Japan fully comply with local labor regulations while endeavoring to foster sustainable growth for our employees and the organization."

Prosecutors recommended the summary court fine Dentsu, but decided not to indict several individual managers in the case, including Takahashi's supervisor, "on the grounds that their actions were not malicious enough to merit punishment," Asashi Shimbun reported. Another report in The Japan Times quoted Takahashi's mother, Yukimi Takahasi, as saying she was "unconvinced about the fact that her superiors were not indicted."

The suicide hit a nerve in Japan, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took up reforms to address the overwork issue. The Labor Ministry also has begun to "name and shame" companies that violated labor laws; Dentsu and Panasonic were among over 300 companies in the first list released in May.