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Whistle-Blowers Gain Help in Japan

Associated Press

For much of his 30-year career, Hiroaki Kushioka’s office was a closet-like room. He would pass the time at work gardening or shoveling snow. His bosses denied him promotion and repeatedly pressured him to quit.

His offense? Being a whistle-blower in a nation where corporate loyalty is so highly valued that employees who report managerial misdoing are shunned as traitors.

That’s why the battle this 59-year-old waged to expose price rigging in the trucking company that employed him has been solitary and has gone largely unnoticed until recently.

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“If I hadn’t done it, I would have regretted it,” he said.

Kushioka, a man with fiery eyes and an insistent tone, may have helped break new ground: Japan recently passed its first law to protect whistle-blowers from workplace retribution.

The law, which takes effect in April, is a response to a spate of corporate scandals that have hit Japan over the last several years -- the coverup of auto defects at Mitsubishi Motors Corp., mislabeling of meat at Snow Brand Foods Co. and the hiding of bad debts at UFJ Bank.

Those scandals and others at police departments, hospitals and a nuclear power plant all surfaced because of whistle-blowers.

As Japanese companies globalize, concern about corporate governance and transparency is growing. In recent years, companies fearing for their image have set up hotlines for whistle-blowers.

But consumer advocates and legal experts say that the law is just a start and that Japan remains far behind the United States and other industrialized nations in protecting whistle-blowers from retribution.

Kushioka and others say the law’s protections don’t go far enough, pointing to a passage that instructs people to talk to their company before going to the media or outside authorities unless lives are at risk.

They contend that talking to the company won’t work because a management gone bad is apt to squelch a whistle-blower rather than respond in good faith.

But proponents of the law say it’s a start.

“Up to now, in Japan, where old-style thinking is so entrenched, people have kept silent,” said Kazuko Miyamoto, a consumer rights advocate who sat on the panel that worked on the law. “Most scandals here are carried out systematically by companies, not individuals, and the entire company tends to get involved in coverups.”

In a society where corporations offer lifetime employment and demand family-like teamwork, whistle-blowers risk being ostracized by colleagues and demoted. Strict labor laws make it hard to fire workers, so harassment is used to force out undesirable workers.

Ostracism is so common it has a name, madogiwa, or “sitting by the window.”

Kushioka’s battle began when he was an eager recruit with a law degree at Tonami Transportation Co., a major hauling firm in northern Japan, and discovered it was illegally inflating bills in a cartel.

When his bosses and labor union took no action, he went to the newspaper that gave him his college scholarship, then to lawmakers and prosecutors.

Over the years, he was stuck at an entry-level salary, and he passed his time at work planting tulips and potatoes. While his wife quietly supported his fight, his two children never knew what he was enduring. He wanted to spare them worries.

This year Kushioka got some vindication for his long ordeal when a court ruled he was a whistle-blower deserving protection and ordered his employer pay him 13.5 million yen ($126,000) in compensation. He had held off suing until 2002, waiting until his children finished school and his son got a job.

The trucking company is not appealing the ruling, noting in a brief statement that the view on whistle-blowers has changed over the last 30 years. The company declined to comment further.

Kushioka is appealing to a higher court, demanding an apology from the company.

Yoichi Shimada, professor of law at Waseda University in Tokyo, hopes that Japanese companies will now set up their own system to solve problems.

“Up to now, whistle-blowers for the most part have ended up with tragic lives. And brave individuals had to give up their whole lives,” he said.

But Kushioka, who reaches retirement age next year, doesn’t feel his years of isolation were a waste.

“Every company needs a whistle-blower,” he said. “I’ve led a very meaningful life.”


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