Elections for the House of Councillors will be held a week from today. The election is being billed as historic in that candidates are permitted to appeal to voters via the Internet.

To the near-exclusion of the other 120 seats in contention, however, the tabloid media have focused on one candidate in particular: Miki Watanabe, who’s been endorsed by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is running for one of the 48 proportional seats up for grabs.

The 53-year-old Watanabe, a self-made entrepreneur, is founder and former chairman of Watami, a conglomerate that includes the Watami chain of izakaya (Japanese-style pubs), several catering services, agribusinesses and rest homes. The Watami corporate website says the group employs 6,157 people.

The companies of the Watami group have a less-than-sterling reputation for being burakku kigyo (“black” companies). In addition to Watami, an article published in Spa! on June 25 classified such major firms as Uniqlo, IBM Japan, Monteroza, Nippon Koa Insurance and Tokyo Legal Mind as black.

“The general image of a ‘black kigyo’ is an employer with a low-wage structure, long working hours, power harassment of employees and so on,” author Ryu Nitta, who has written prolifically on the subject, tells Spa!. “But to me, the term means companies in which the owner has no desire to reward workers, and which engage in illegal practices with premeditation.”

Criticism of employment practices by black companies is not new, but for the past month Watami has been cast in particularly harsh light owing to its founder’s political ambitions.

In its June 13 issue, Shukan Bunshun described Watanabe as “Mr. Black Kigyo” himself, and noted that the company’s CSR (corporate social responsibility) report in 2008 gave the average length of worker employment at the group’s companies as just 3.3 years. Reports for subsequent years omitted these figures entirely.

On June 28, Tsuyoshi and Yuko Mori, parents of a 26-year-old daughter who had committed suicide in June 2008 — two months after joining Watami — due to what is claimed to be death by overwork (karoshi), marched into the LDP headquarters in Nagatacho to demand that the party drop Watanabe as a candidate. “Is a business executive who uses and discards young people qualified to be a Diet member?” they asked.

In the first of two articles beginning from its July 11 issue, Shukan Asahi Geino related the circumstances leading to Mori’s death on June 12, 2008, when she jumped from the upper floor of an apartment building. She did not leave a suicide note, but among her possessions was a schedule book in which she had scribbled, “My body hurts … I can’t move quickly … help me please, somebody.”

According to coworkers, after a perfunctory training period Mori had been saddled with heavy job responsibilities, overtime and “homework” in the form of written reports, to be compiled on her days off. The day before she died, she had risen at dawn to attend an obligatory once-monthly early morning training session at the company’s Tokyo headquarters. At the session, participants were tested on their ability to cite passages from an inspirational book by Watanabe — the cost for which was deducted from employees’ wages. It’s possible that Mori’s low score of 68 out of 100 points may have also factored in her suicide.

At least some LDP members view Watanabe’s candidacy as an embarrassment. During a committee meeting, an unnamed LDP Diet member allegedly remarked that he’d been told a Watami restaurant in his district had not been paying dues to the neighborhood business association, and that the firm did not pay unemployment and other social insurance benefits for its workers.

He expressed concern that the LDP’s image would suffer if it allowed the former chairman of such a “dirty” company to run for public office.

When questioned, Watanabe’s secretary told Weekly Playboy’s reporter that Watanabe had no intention of withdrawing, and that he’s campaigning “energetically”.

In one of a series of articles about Watami, Nikkan Gendai on July 9 warned that Watanabe might be swept into office on the coattails of the anticipated strong showing by the LDP.

“LDP proportional candidates tend to be of four types,” political commentator Tadaoki Nogami told the tabloid. “These are incumbent Diet members; representatives of business associations; bureaucrats with close ties to specific business areas; and athletes or showbiz entertainers with the ability to pull in votes.

“In some cases celebrities who are close to the party in power can get elected. It seems the determining factor for Watami’s former chairman is that he and Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe are kindred spirits.”

In the latest Watami-related development, reported on July 8, a 73-year-old female resident of an assisted-living facility in Osaka was found drowned in the bath. It was the second such case at a Watami group facility in two years.

As the campaign enters its final week, Watanabe continues to dodge the media’s brickbats while running on the slogan, “Business ability that can take back Japan.” But before he tries to fix what’s wrong with Japan, snickered Nikkan Gendai on July 11, perhaps he ought to work on mending his own business first.

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