After a Suicide, Dentsu Forms Committee to Improve Work Conditions in Japan

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Dentsu's world headquarters tower in Tokyo.
Dentsu's world headquarters tower in Tokyo. Credit: Courtesy Dentsu
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Dentsu Inc. has formed a committee to reform the working environment at its Japan offices after labor inspectors ruled that the suicide of a young advertising staffer was caused by overwork.

Long hours and tough conditions on the job are a hallmark of many industries in Japan, including advertising; the case at Japanese ad giant Dentsu has become a symbol of the problem. Labor officials decided that the suicide last year of 24-year-old Dentsu employee Matsuri Takahashi was "karoshi" -- a uniquely Japanese term that means "death by overwork."

Work inspectors raided the company's Tokyo headquarters and seven of its other offices in Japan last month to probe the company's working culture. The labor ministry has said it is weighing whether to strip Dentsu of its certification as a "family-friendly" employer, the Kyodo news agency reported last week.

Dentsu, which controls about a quarter of advertising in Japan, said Tuesday it would set up an eight-member group called the Dentsu Working Environment Reforms Commission. The committee, to be headed by President and CEO Tadashi Ishii, "will create a comprehensive reform plan to prevent repeated overwork issues," the company said.

"We take labor standards extremely seriously and want to proactively try to remove karoshi from Dentsu's working culture," the company said in a statement. Four teams of junior and mid-level employees will be set up make recommendations to the committee. Dentsu says it has also hired a law firm to independently review its work practices.

The company has already taken some measures based on recommendations by labor inspectors. It has barred employees from working after 10 p.m., turning off the lights from then until 5 a.m. the next day. It is also limiting overtime to 45 hours a month.

A reverence for hard work has long been built into the company culture. Dentsu's influential post-war president, Hideo Yoshida, wrote 10 guidelines for employees that are still well-known today. One of them instructs employees not to give up. "If you have tackled it, don't relinquish it," the rule says in Japanese, according to a translation by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. "Even if you are killed, don't relinquish it until you achieve your goal."

Dentsu's digital division in Japan was rocked by an overbilling scandal in September. The ad giant pledged to repay $2.3 million to clients and placed the blame on overworked employees making mistakes.

Ms. Takahashi worked on digital accounts in the direct business marketing division.

Her case was not the only karoshi at Dentsu. Japanese news reports say an ailing employee's death in 2013 was recognized this year as being tied to working long hours. Dentsu has declined to comment. A suicide by another young Dentsu employee in 1991 was also deemed a "karoshi." That case went to the Supreme Court, and Dentsu paid $1.6 million in damages to the man's family.