Japan's workers aren't sacked, they're driven to suicide

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Masayuki Sawada was a shy, serious man not given to big announcements, but on the morning of his death he called his home with drastic news. At the age of 28, after five and a half increasingly unhappy years, he had handed in his notice.

Such decisions are not taken lightly in Japan, where the tradition of "lifetime employment" is as binding upon employees as it is on their bosses. But Masayuki Sawada's working life had become unliveable. A few months earlier his boss had asked to borrow some money - he wanted to visit the Philippines, and Sawada obediently gave the man 500,000 yen (pounds 2,600). Then other employees began cadging smaller sums, and Sawada, out of generosity and weakness, always shelled out.

Sawada was the head of his section, but he was an outsider - younger than most of his subordinates, and the only one to have been to university. His readiness to help out his colleagues seemed to make them despise him. He never got the money back, and one day he realised that notes were going missing from his wallet. Things got worse when he came across evidence that his boss was embezzling company funds.

After a bitter argument, he came close to being thrown into one of the printing presses. On 20 June last year, Sawada resigned, and phoned his mother. Half an hour later, he gave literal expression to the phrase "job for life". "They found him in the computer room," says his brother Teruichi, who is conducting a campaign of protest against his brother's former employer. "He hanged himself from an iron bar, with a thick rubber cord around his neck."

Japanese schools, with their relentless culture of conformity, have long been breeding grounds for bullying. But recently, incubated by a stagnant economy which is putting unaccustomed pressure on Japanese companies, the problem appears to have spread upwards: evidence gathered by trade unions suggests more and more people like Mr Sawada are being driven to despair by bullying at work.

This spring the Tokyo Managers Union, which represents white-collar workers, will open a "corporate bullying hotline". An experimental service with four operators was swamped by nearly 700 calls during one week last summer, and when the union tried the same thing in October it received 1,045 calls. More than half were women, and in one out of seven cases, employees had either attempted or contemplated suicide.

The problem has its roots in the powerful changes Japan has experienced in the last five years. For nearly 50 years the Japanese economy grew steadily. Japanese employees worked longer and took fewer holidays than almost anyone else; in return, companies provided complete security. The worst that could befall an incompetent worker was banishment to a "window desk" - without prospects or responsibilities, but safe and salaried.

All this changed with the sudden popping of the "bubble economy". An ominous new euphemism entered the language - risutora, short for the English word "restructuring".

In the West this would have meant redundancies, but for many Japanese employers this has proved almost unbearably difficult. Apart from the damage to the reputation of a company which was seen to betray its workers, sacking people is expensive. "If your company makes you redundant, then they have to pay you off," says Kiyotsugu Shitara, secretary-general of the Tokyo Managers' Union. "They don't like having to do this. This is why bullying is on the increase - they make people's lives unbearable, and then when they quit it looks as if they are leaving of their own accord."

This kind of intimidation takes place all over the world, but in Japan it has a uniquely vindictive and childish character, intimately tied up with the group mentality which Japanese institutions both nurture and depend upon. One of the callers to the bullying hotline was treated as if he was invisible: he was never told when meetings were held, and at 3pm, when the "office ladies" brought green tea, they passed by without a word. Another man, who worked for a rubber company, was forced to write the same report every fortnight, over and over again.

Many of the worst stories, like that of Masayuki Sawada, are not obviously connected to economic troubles, but all seem to speak of a disturbing callousness at the heart of corporate Japan. Corporate bullying is officially unrecognised - the Labour Ministry keeps no statistics and, by their nature, resignations prompted by intimidation are deniable. When Masayuki Sawada died, his bosses claimed it was because of a woman.

"My brother had no girlfriend that we knew about," says Teruichi, "why, in that case, would he have chosen to die at work? It is the company who are responsible, but they have shown no sincerity. Even the president refused to see us. It leaves us with a lot of anger, just anger."