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Bread and Roses: My New Column for Shingetsu News Agency

SNA (Tokyo) — Between 2012 and 2018, I wrote a monthly column called “Labor Pains” for the Japan Times. I have left Japan Times. I am so delighted to begin a new column this month called “Bread and Roses” for the Shingetsu News Agency.

I teach labor and social insurance law at Sagami Women’s University in Kanagawa Prefecture. I also serve as executive president of Tozen Union in Tokyo. Labor in one form or another takes up about 80% of my life and waking consciousness.

The other 20%? That goes to my beloved rabbits. Eighteen months ago, my previous granny bunny left me, or “returned to the moon” as we say. But just a few days ago, I adopted a seven-month-old buck named Sumitaro, since its fur is sumi (inky black). Oh, my! I’m already talking about bunnies. Please forgive me this embarrassing habit and don’t think me too silly!

Back to the subject at hand: My life’s work is labor law, fighting for workers to be happy at their workplace. That requires quite a struggle in today’s Japan. Countless incidents bring workers unhappiness, involving long work hours, unpaid overtime, karoshi (death by overwork), karojisatsu (suicide due to overwork), power harassment, sexual harassment, maternity harassment, paternity harassment, and a dramatic increase in unstable, irregular, contingent employment.

The so-called Technical Intern Training Program is little more than enslavement of foreign workers. Corrupt businesses exploit foreign students. Amnesty applicants and undocumented foreigners are detained for years without charge or due process.

The current government, the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, has declared, under the slogan hatarakikata kaikaku (workplace reform), that they will “overhaul the way we work in Japan, starting with putting an end to long work hours.”

However, the trail of legal reforms they have enacted are pocked with dangerous holes, the deepest of which is allowing employers to work their workers up to 100 hours overtime in a single month (albeit during “exceptional times only”). This 100-hours-per-month of overtime matches the official karoshi death-by-overwork line set by the government’s own Labor Ministry.

The “highly skilled professional” system legal reforms relieve employers of the obligation to pay any overtime (any work beyond eight hours a day) to specialists and engineers who make over 10.75 million yen (about US$100,000) a year. Not many make so much in annual pay, so it may seem not so vicious as far as reforms go. But we don’t know what the government will do to that salary threshold in future years.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tries to sell us the notion that these reforms will save us from the kaisha ningen (company man) devotion to our corporate overlords. Such devotion, they assert, will now be a thing of the past. The corporate media follow in lockstep, covering the reforms in glowing terms, and many citizens, unfortunately, have been charmed by the pretty words used to describe them.

My university students are shocked when I teach them reform details not covered by the corporate media. On the one hand, I want to implore today’s students and youth to make the effort to find out the correct information without relying on corporate media. On the other hand, I think it’s even more important that we blast the corporate media for its on-bended-knee obeisance to the government.

Under such circumstances, I feel so honored to have the chance to write about Japan’s labor issues for Shingetsu News Agency. I vow to write a taboo-free column about things not covered by our corporate media. If I can engage in dialog here with readers, then perhaps we can shine a bit of sunshine on the darker side of what it is like to work in Japan.

My labor union is made up of workers from about thirty nations around the world of all sorts of jobs and workplaces. Only 17% of Japanese are in unions, and most workers live completely cut off from them. Some say unions in Japan are an “endangered species.”

But my experience as president of Tozen Union has taught me that labor unions still have a major role to play in the lives of workers. Article 28 of Japan’s Constitution and the Trade Union Act guarantee workers’ right to solidarity, the key legal principle underlying all union activity in Japan. Labor union rights are solidly protected, at least on paper.

So why are unions nevertheless on the brink? Management types want to suppress union activity by ridiculing it as endangered, as if to say only a few weirdos join unions. Yet the chance to use union activity to change everything sits right before our eyes.

My union is struggling against this trend, this notion that only idealistic activists join unions. Our prime slogan is kumiai ni hairu no wa Tozen da (Joining a Labor Union is for Everybody). It is in this spirit that I will write this column. Please explore Japan’s labor laws and conditions together with me each month.

If you want to begin a direct dialog with me on Japan labor issues, please contact me at shingetsu.okunuki@gmail.com.

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