Court win for Olympus whistleblower
Japan's Supreme Court has ruled in favour of a whistleblower for the first time in a case that highlighted the harsh treatment outspoken employees have endured in a nation which zealously values loyalty and conformity.
Despite being a good salesman with experience in the United States, Masaharu Hamada, 51, was demoted at Olympus, forced to take rudimentary tests and ignored by colleagues, in what he alleged was reprisal for raising the issue of supplier complaints.
Today he received a notice from the court, dated Thursday, dismissing the appeal by the Tokyo-based camera and medical equipment maker against a 2010 lower court decision. It sealed the victory of the little "salaryman" against a giant of Japan Inc.
"We need a society where honest hard-working people don't lose out," Mr Hamada told The Associated Press. "This is about justice and human rights."
Mr Hamada's story highlighted how workers labelled as misbehaving are punished in Japan, where major companies like Olympus offer lifetime employment, although they more freely fire contract and part-time workers.
That means employees like Mr Hamada become targets of cruel harassment designed to silence them or make them quit. Mr Hamada was nearly driven to breakdown during his five-year battle.
Japan is behind some Western nations in protecting whistleblowers. A law to protect them was enacted only in 2006, and critics say it is inadequate because it does not penalise companies that punish whistleblowers. To pursue legal action, whistleblowers cannot quit as the law only applies to employees.
Only a handful of whistleblower have come forward in Japan in the past few decades. When they do, they are treated as outcasts, sometimes being told to sit in cupboard-sized offices or to mow the lawn. Sometimes even their children become victims of discrimination, so abhorred is the employee who dares to question the company.
Mr Hamada sued Olympus in 2008, saying he was punished for relaying a supplier's complaint that its best employees were being lured away by Olympus. Olympus said he was merely transferred, not demoted.
His case is considered a whistleblowing case in Japan because he went first to his bosses and then to the company compliance unit, trying to raise questions about the professional behaviour of colleagues for the public good, and, as the Supreme Court found, was punished unfairly in retribution.
Last year, the Tokyo High Court reversed an earlier district court decision and ordered Olympus to pay Hamada 2.2 million yen (£17,710) in damages for the transfer. Olympus had appealed.
Olympus was not immediately available for comment today. In the past, it has called the court rulings favouring Mr Hamada "regrettable".
Olympus has been targeted recently by another high-profile whistleblower, Briton Michael Woodford, the former chief executive.
Mr Woodford was fired in October after he blew the whistle on dubious accounting at Olympus. The company later acknowledged it hid 117.7 billion yen (£947.5 million) in investment losses dating back to the 1990s. Three former Olympus executives, including the ex-chairman, were arrested earlier this year on suspicion of orchestrating the accounting cover-up.
Mr Woodford has become a hero in Japan. Three weeks ago, he won a £10 million (1.2 billion yen) settlement from Olympus in a British court. He had sued alleging unlawful dismissal and discrimination as he was not given the same treatment as a Japanese employee.
How Mr Hamada will be treated at Olympus on Monday remains unclear.
He plans to turn up at work for work at 8.45am as usual, wearing his company colour, blue, as he is confident he is an upstanding "Olympus-man".
Mr Hamada said he would like to be transferred to the corporate compliance division, given the serious problems that have surfaced with Mr Woodford's case and the knowledge he has gained about proper management through his court battle.
"I would like to work for the true revival of Olympus, where dedicated employees can work and feel joy, in a nurturing environment, and be proud," he said.