In her Dec. 14 Tokyo Shimbun column, media critic Minako Saito mentioned how the press is excited about the buzzword of the year and the kanji of the year. They are much less interested in another annual prize, the Black Company Award for the firm that most egregiously exploits workers. The nominations were announced and Saito says the media, “especially TV,” mostly ignored them, since many of the companies mentioned are advertisers. Consequently, those who have won the dubious honor in the past, like Tokyo Electric and 7-Eleven Japan, have never felt pressured to improve labor conditions.

One company that was not nominated this year is Fast Retailing Co., which operates the huge low-price apparel maker Uniqlo, even though it has had a reputation as a black company ever since it sued publisher Bungeishunju in 2011 over a book that claimed Uniqlo forced employees to work long hours for low pay. The book, “Light and Shadow of the Uniqlo Empire,” written by Masuo Yokota, was an extension of articles he did for Shukan Bunshun, a magazine also published by Bungeishunju. The plaintiff insisted that Yokota’s investigation of Uniqlo’s labor practices was faulty and incomplete.

The suit was dismissed in October 2013 by the Tokyo District Court, and the following year the Supreme Court rejected a second appeal, agreeing with the lower court that “core parts of the book (were) true,” according to a Jiji Press report. The suit was standard spin control for a powerful company such as Uniqlo.

In March 2015, Uniqlo’s imperious founder and chairman, Tadashi Yanai, was interviewed for the business magazine President. At one point the interviewer asked him to comment on the opinion that Uniqlo might be a black company.

“People who talk behind my back about such things have never met me,” Yanai answered. “They should actually experience working in our company.”

Yokota read the interview and decided to do just that, as he explains in the Dec. 8 issue of Shukan Bunshun. In the past, Yokota has “gone undercover” at companies such as Yamato Delivery and Amazon so that he could write about what it was like to work there. He says he stands by his 2011 Uniqlo book, but acknowledges he devoted a small portion to the company’s labor sins — the bulk is about how Uniqlo became such a powerful company. That portion was the only part Yanai had objected to. Yokota felt he needed to know more, and the only way would be, as Yanai suggested in his 2015 interview, if he worked there himself.

In the same Bunshun article, Yokota describes how in the fall of 2015 he assumed a new name and went to a Uniqlo outlet in Chiba to apply for a part-time job. At most outlets, the part-time staff is made up of college students, whereas regular employees are in their 20s and 30s. Yokota is in his 50s, so he knew he would stand out and prepared himself for questions about why he wanted to work retail at his age. It wasn’t a problem. Uniqlo is always desperate for help, and they hired Yokota the same day they interviewed him. He immediately started working in the back room, unpacking boxes.

He was at Uniqlo for about 13 months, transferring outlets several times within the Tokyo area and paying close attention to the daily newsletters that outlined “directives from the top.” As a result of his earlier book and the attendant lawsuit, Uniqlo had made changes in its labor practices so as to cut down on overwork, but most of these changes seemed cosmetic — guaranteed days off for managers, strict break times. During the two busiest bargain sales — the New Year’s holiday and an anniversary “thank you festival” in November — Uniqlo typically earns half its revenues for the year, and because last year’s “thank you festival” was considered a failure, management extended the sale from four to seven days in order to reach their targets more readily. Head office employees were dispatched to stores to pitch in. Regular and semi-regular employees worked from 9 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. all seven days. “It was like a war zone,” Yokota says in the Bunshun article.

He often observed instances of regular employees signing off for the day and then continuing to work for free, since the new rules strictly limited official overtime. These illegal actions were a makeshift response to changing realities on the sales floor. Yanai is overly fond of mid-term plans and sales targets, which are always altered capriciously, and in order to catch up with them employees and the personnel department have to improvise.

During peak sales periods Uniqlo would hire temporary workers, who are expensive since the employer is paying a margin to the temp agency. These temps had no sales experience and were mostly worthless. It would have been better to increase the wages of part-timers. They’d likely be able to hire more and keep them, but that sort of logic doesn’t appeal to Yanai, who seems obsessed with short-term results.

Even during the 2009 recession, Uniqlo’s profit rate for domestic sales was 20 percent. The average profit rate for a Tokyo listed company was 2 percent. Yanai can’t quite achieve that rate any more, so he is focused on cutting costs — meaning personnel costs.

After the first of Yokota’s latest round of reports went public in Bunshun, Uniqlo management figured out who Yokota was and fired him. In the next article in the series that appeared in the Dec. 15 issue, he describes his dismissal, with the reporter asking the personnel chief what company rule he had broken. The official said the “content” of the article wasn’t the point, its very existence was.

Yokota took up the gauntlet that Yanai threw down in the President interview, something journalists should do in other industries, including the media, which is notorious for overworking its charges. On Dec. 6, the Labor Standards Bureau warned Asahi Shimbun about falsifying hours for two employees, one a reporter, even while the newspaper was running a series on the changing face of work in Japan. Physician, heal thyself.

Correction: This story was modified on Dec. 22, 2016, to reflect the correct spelling of Masuo Yokota. 

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