Labor Inspectors Raid Dentsu Japan Offices After Suicide

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Dentsu's world headquarters tower in Tokyo.
Dentsu's world headquarters tower in Tokyo. Credit: Kure via Wikimedia Commons

Labor inspectors have raided Dentsu's Tokyo headquarters and seven of its other offices in Japan to check on working conditions there after the suicide of a young hire last year.

Work inspectors have ruled that the suicide of 24-year-old Dentsu employee Matsuri Takahashi was linked to overwork. Ms. Takahashi was in digital accounts in the direct marketing business division; separately, Dentsu's digital business in Japan has made headlines for an overbilling scandal that emerged there last month.

The Japanese advertising company, the biggest in Japan and the world's fifth-largest by revenue, confirmed that the Tokyo Labor Bureau was investigating following Ms. Takahashi's death and said it is cooperating fully.

Inspectors visited Dentsu's headquarters on Friday to check on the company's labor management, a company spokesman said. Investigators also visited branch offices in Osaka, Nagoya and Kyoto, as well as four subsidiaries -- Dentsu Kyushu, Dentsu Hokkaido, Dentsu West Japan and Dentsu Okinawa, he added.

Grueling workweeks are a big issue in Japan, in advertising and beyond; a recent white paper from the government said that nearly a quarter of companies in Japan have some people logging more than 80 hours of overtime a month.

Japanese reports have suggested Dentsu faces extra scrutiny this time because of another case from the 1990s. In 2000, the ad giant settled a lawsuit by agreeing to pay $1.6 million in damages to the family of Ichiro Oshima, 24, who killed himself in 1991. The country's Supreme Court had ruled that overwork was to blame. As part of the settlement, Dentsu reportedly pledged to prevent similar deaths.

Dentsu, founded 115 years ago, controls a quarter of advertising in Japan, the third-biggest global ad market after the U.S. and China. It has gone global with the purchase of the Aegis Group in 2013 for nearly $5 billion. But the Japanese market is still at its core, and it does just under half of its business there.

Ms. Takahashi reportedly worked 105 hours of overtime in the month starting Oct. 9; the Japan Times reported on a complaint she had left on Twitter, saying "Again, I have to go to work on Saturday and Sunday. I seriously want to die." The report said she killed herself by jumping from the window of a corporate dormitory.

Ms. Takahashi, a graduate of the University of Tokyo, worked in the direct marketing business division, which no longer exists after organizational restructuring and consolidation, Dentsu said. She had reportedly joined Dentsu about nine months before she died.

Asked what changes the company has taken since Ms. Takahashi's death, a spokesman ticked off a list of recent measures. He said Dentsu had set up a company-wide policy on time management, as well as workstyle reform goals geared toward "maintaining employee health." Specific provisions include "no overtime" days and ensuring employees take their paid leave. Superiors are asked to check on the health of their staff. And employees who had worked long hours get doctors' checkups, even if they object.

"Working after 22:00 is prohibited in principle, and employees are instructed to go home as soon as possible and rest," the spokesman wrote in an email. There's also a ban in principle on coming in early the day after working late.

Last month, Dentsu said that overworked employees in its digital division made mistakes that led to overbilling and other problems; Toyota had noticed the issue first. Dentsu has said 111 clients total were affected, and it promised to repay $2.3 million to clients overcharged for digital work.

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