Authorities have seen a rise in applications to be labor standards inspectors in the wake of the death of a young female employee of Dentsu Inc. after she worked excessive overtime.
The karōshi (death from overwork) incident at Japan’s top ad agency in 2015 shocked the nation and led to the firm’s summary indictment in July.
“I once fell sick because of long working hours,” a 24-year-old man said after finishing the first round of examinations for the labor standards job in June. “I want to become an inspector so I can protect workers.”
Two years earlier, he had started work at a manufacturing company in Tokyo but quit about 12 months later after becoming mentally unstable, even contemplating suicide, due to working an average of 80 to 90 hours of overtime per month. In the worst month, he put in 140 hours of overtime.
He then took a part-time job at a sports gym and started preparing for the labor standards inspector exam.
Another applicant, a 22-year-old male university student, said the death of the 24-year-old Dentsu worker shocked him, especially as she belonged to his generation.
“I want to eliminate karōshi,” he said.
According to the labor ministry, 3,711 applicants sought the inspector job in fiscal 2017, which started in April, up from 3,673 in the previous fiscal year. The rise, although small, followed two consecutive yearly falls from fiscal 2014 when the number stood at 4,991.
Labor standards inspectors are national-level bureaucrats whose primary job is to keep an eye on the rights and safety of people in the workplace.
Assigned to the 321 labor standards inspection offices under the 47 prefectural labor bureaus, they check workplace conditions. They are authorized to conduct on-site inspections without notice and searches if necessary. They also have the power to arrest violators of the labor law.
The inspectors are expected to play a prime role in achieving one of the government’s policy goals to shore up the economy — raising productivity through reforms in labor and employment practices.
The job is, nevertheless, low-key, and inspectors usually work alone, endeavoring patiently until problematic practices and conditions are remedied.
Yusuke Hori, a 24-year-old inspector in his third year working at the Yokohama Minami labor office, said he was fiercely shouted at last year by a manager at a metal-processing factory that had been neglecting to conduct regular tests for toxic materials as its business deteriorated.
Hori had to visit and phone the factory numerous times until the company finally agreed to follow his instructions.
“People don’t listen to you if you simply say ‘please follow regulations,’ ” said Yoshinori Chinda, 40, who works out of the labor office in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture. “You need tenacity. You need to listen to them and persuade them.”
Reports are only filed with authorities if problematic practices are deemed serious and malicious, and the situation remains unchanged despite repeated instructions, he said.
In 2015, inspectors conducted about 160,000 on-site investigations across the country. Violations were found in 110,000 of these cases, including 1,000 where reports were sent to authorities, according to the labor ministry.
The ministry set up a special task force in April 2015 in its Tokyo and Osaka bureaus to keep a close eye on firms — particularly major ones — that are repeatedly found to operate with illegally long working hours.
In December that year, Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old worker at Dentsu, jumped to her death from her company dormitory less than a year after she had joined the ad agency.
The Tokyo bureau task force conducted a criminal investigation into Dentsu and concluded that she had lost the will to live due to excessively long working hours.
“We pay attention to all sorts of information,” said Yukihiro Nishida, 42, a member of the Tokyo task force.
However, labor inspection work as a whole suffers a chronic shortage in the number of inspectors, with only about 3,200 covering the more than 4 million business offices across the nation.
Chinda of the Tokorozawa office said the lack of manpower means an inspector usually deals with 20 to 30 cases simultaneously.