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Art is one medium that people use to deal with traumatic experiences from their lives. Doesn’t it make sense then that, at least in Japan, people might do the same with manga?

Manga artist Zenzo has authored two online comics in which she charts her own journey of misery and abuse while working in the country’s apparel industry. In July, she posted the first manga, “Two Months Ago I Wanted to Die,” to her @zettdot Twitter account. Its overarching message is one that encourages others in similar situations to pay better attention to their own mental well-being.

“If you’re having suicidal thoughts, don’t get used to thinking that way,” she says via the comic. “Reach out and get help.”

The story kicks off with the apparel company Zenzo works at drastically reducing the number of staff due to the pandemic. Shorthanded and overworked, she and her colleagues struggle to meet customer demand and start receiving complaints. After several months of stress, Zenzo is called into her manager’s office and fired.

“My boss said my attitude toward work was bad, I requested too many holidays, and that my co-workers probably didn’t trust me. I couldn’t believe it,” says Zenzo’s main character, illustrated as a bear. “The boss was one thing but I thought my co-workers and I were in this together.”

The manga tackles the character’s suicide attempt and subsequent efforts to seek professional help. Two months later, she finds another job at a boutique and encounters hardship yet again when her new boss tells her she must purchase that company’s clothing to wear when working on the floor. Zenzo refuses and her boss pressures her to resign on the spot. This chain of events is chronicled in “I Quit My Job in 7 Hours and 15 Minutes,” which was posted to Twitter in August. The manga has been liked 75,000 times and retweeted more than 30,000 times.

The manga was shared on the website Maidona News, where the top comment read, “Wearing a store’s own clothes is common practice. … They won’t sell out of everything so why not provide those items to the staff (for free)?”

“I used to work for Uniqlo and we had to wear the brand all the time we were at work, at 30% discounts,” said Twitter user @ai_hp_ai in response to the manga. “But the minute the seasons changed or the line was discontinued, we had to buy new stuff all over again. And we were banned from wearing last year’s clothing or to get discounts for underwear. There were so many rules!”

WWD Japan interviewed Zenzo for a feature earlier this month in which she expanded on her position regarding having to buy store inventory to work there. She believes that “wages are paid as compensation for labor” and, as such, an employee shouldn’t be forced to put their wages back into their employer for the right to work. “I hope that my manga will provide a chance to take a look at what’s going down in the industry, and (get people to) question this company policy about wearing the brand at work.”

Mission accomplished … to some extent. While the author may have been attempting to start a conversation surrounding toxic work environments with both mangas, many readers became fixated on the idea of whether an apparel company can order its employees to buy its product to remain employed.

Junya Utsubo, an attorney with bengo4.com, believes that employers can suggest their employees buy their workplace’s product at a discounted rate as part of a benefits package.

“Legally, there’s nothing wrong with that,” he writes. “However, if an employee is forced to buy from the brand every single month, spending ¥20,000 to ¥30,000 out of pocket at the behest of their employers, then we may have a case of an illegal labor practice.”

In the WWD piece, attorney Yasuhiro Nakauchi says that in order to avoid a scenario like Zenzo’s, “it’s best for employers to clearly state the terms of employment, including any rule about buying the brand’s clothing line. And new employees should confirm this point with their bosses before signing on with the company.”

Still, while these attorneys provide the way in which companies could make such demands, they don’t stop to question whether they should.

At the end of “Two Months Ago I Wanted to Die,” Zenzo thanks the mental health professionals and friends who helped her through her difficult time. “I’m here, alive. Thank you so much again,” she writes.

She has also indicated that the success has caused her to think about a career pivot to illustrating. Though the manga industry isn’t known for the best working conditions either, at least the work itself should be therapeutic.

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