Prompted by a recent spate of corporate misdeeds, moves are afoot, albeit slowly, to provide legal protection for whistle-blowers.
Current laws do not offer a protective shield for those who have the courage to reveal suspected misdeeds perpetrated by an employer, except for one law covering the nuclear power industry.
The country, however, has witnessed endless corporate scandals triggered by revelations from insiders, including the coverup of vehicle defects by Mitsubishi Motors Corp., beef-mislabeling fraud committed by Snow Brand Foods Co. and Nippon Meat Packers Inc., and the concealment of nuclear reactor faults by Tokyo Electric Power Co. and other utilities.
The revelations of dubious corporate practices have thrown a spotlight on the role of whistle-blowers — and their vulnerability to retaliatory mistreatment by their employers.
Had Hiroaki Kushioka been born in another country, for example, he might have become a hero of civil justice. But the 56-year-old employee of trucking firm Tonami Transportation Co. was moved to a small isolated room far from the headquarters. He was given neither specific tasks nor a promotion for 28 years only because he spilled the beans on an industry price-fixing cartel involving his company.
Kushioka, in a very rare move, disclosed his name when he blew the whistle. Since loyalty to one’s employer weighs so much in Japan’s corporate culture, inside informers are often treated as betrayers. Most thus remain anonymous, fearing retaliation by their employers.
“I never felt sorry for disclosing my name,” Kushioka said, “I was confident that I had done nothing wrong. This gave me courage.”
Despite the severe pressure the company exerted not only on him but on his family and relatives to leave the firm, he dared to stay on.
Now various circles are working to create legal protection for whistle-blowers like Kushioka.
So far, efforts by Cabinet members and lawmakers to craft protective legal measures have not produced tangible results.
The exception is in the nuclear power industry. The law regulating reactors was revised in 1999 to protect whistle-blowers in the wake of the nation’s worst nuclear accident, which occurred at a JCO Co. uranium processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture.
It was eventually revealed that a deadly nuclear chain reaction was caused by workers following an in-house manual that sidestepped safe operating rules.
The revised law, however, falls short, as shown by Tepco’s coverups of reactor defects and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency’s admission that it leaked to Tepco the identity of an American engineer who blew the whistle on its coverups when the agency first made inquiries. This happened right after the law was revised.
The raft of corporate coverup scandals led the Cabinet Office’s advisory panel to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to urge earlier this year the quick creation of a system to protect informers.
This month, a subgroup of the panel on government consumer policies discussed the legal framework necessary to shield informers from dismissal and other employer retaliation.
The panel is expected to hammer out a final report as early as May. Its members, however, are split on specific measures.
The panel was initially expected to lean toward revising existing consumer-protection laws to protect whistle-blowers under limited scenarios, including when food is at risk. But many members now favor broader protections. Some even seek a law that would protect not only corporate employees but also public servants.
The Democratic Party of Japan has submitted a bill to protect whistle-blowers in the public sector. Under the plan, civil servants who have detected misconduct would be able to report to a body to be created under the Cabinet Office, which would then launch an investigation.
Other opposition parties are interested in the bill, but it remains to be seen if they will join forces with the DPJ, opposition sources said.
Independent Diet member Etsuko Kawada, whose activist HIV-positive son waged a campaign against a coverup of HIV-tainted blood products by the now-defunct Green Cross Corp., also proposes broad protections for corporate employees and civil servants.
Kazuko Miyamoto, author of “The Era of Whistle Blowers” and a director of the Consumer Research Institute, an affiliate of the nonprofit Nippon Association of Consumer Specialists, believes wide-ranging protections are best in the long term.
“It will take time to see a comprehensive law enacted like the one in Britain,” she said. “In this society, I think it will be difficult to protect everything all at once. As a first step, it would be a good idea to codify protections for whistle-blowers in consumer-related sectors.”
In Britain, the Public Interest Disclosure Act broadly protects informers in the public and private sectors from dismissal and other unfair treatment. The U.S. has several laws separately covering federal officials, workers in sectors affecting the environment, including the nuclear power industry, and employees at listed firms.
“No one would oppose protection for the sake of consumer safety and health,” Miyamoto said. “But it would be more difficult to make a statutory judgment on how serious a certain firm’s wrongdoing is.”
Ken Shiraishi, a research fellow at the Economic and Social Research Institute of the Cabinet Office, said the government and lawmakers should recognize the urgency of the issue.
“Structural reforms and efforts to revive the economy top the government’s agenda right now, so whistle-blower protection legislation would have to wait,” he said.
But civil rights groups and activists have formed a network in Tokyo to keep the momentum alive.
“At present, one takes a great risk blowing the whistle if the consequences may include criminal charges (against a wrongdoer),” said Yukiko Miki, executive director at the Information Clearing House Japan, a nonprofit organization and a member of the network.
“I think we need a system that not only protects informers, but also makes good use of the information provided,” she said, noting the network will organize symposiums and other opportunities for people to learn more about the issue and eventually put forth a proposal.
Last month in Osaka, Kabunushi (Shareholders) Ombudsman, a volunteer group of lawyers and accountants, set up a center to advise and support whistle-blowers while protecting their identity.
Amid these efforts, a growing number of people are acknowledging the importance of protecting whistle-blowers, who play a key role in revealing wrongs committed behind closed doors.
A recent Cabinet Office survey found more than 90 percent of listed firms in Japan support legislation to protect people who reveal wrongdoing or unjust acts by their employers.
Whistle-blower Kushioka also feels the issue is finally being addressed.
Just a few years shy of retirement, he decided in January to sue his employer, seeking an official apology and 48 million yen in damages, including the amount of salary he would have received had he not been persecuted.
“I never expected so many reporters to gather at the news conference I held to announce my decision to sue the company,” Kushioka said.
“After witnessing the recent spate of corporate scandals, people probably have begun to realize that whistle-blowers are not traitors to their employers.”
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