An Indian Worker Sues His Japanese Employer
by Robert Guest
From the credit – Robert Guest is a British free-lance writer based in Hiroshima who contributes business and other articles to The Far Eastern Economic Review and The Independent.
The Journal – Issues in Bilateral Relations, November 1992 page 37-39 (A monthly publication of American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ).) Permission pending.
You are a foreign executive working for a major Japanese firm and you are sure that the company is giving you a raw deal simply because you are a foreigner. What can you do? “Nothing” has long been the answer. There’s no point in suing, continues this logic, because this is Japan, the famous non-litigious society, and your chances of beating a large Japanese company in a Japanese court are virtually nil. You shrug it off and go have a drink at your favorite watering hole.
But all this could be changing now because of a lawsuit filed by an Indian exec against his Japanese employer – Mitsubishi Electric. A software engineer from India named Kamal Sinha has sued his employer for racial discrimination and harassment, marking the first such lawsuit ever filed in a Japanese court. If the Japanese company loses, the fallout may be felt in workplaces from Sendai to Shikoku.
The plaintiff is alleging that whereas Japanese employees at Mitsubishi are given English-language lessons at company expense, and Caucasian staff are provided with the best Japanese-language teaching available, he has been given no assistance whatsoever in his efforts to learn the Japanese language.
Kamal understood that his contract with the Japanese company was for “life” and that it specifically stated that he was to be treated equally with his Japanese colleagues. Since he has not been, Kamal Sinha claims that this is a clear case of racial discrimination.
The implications of this case are enormous, according to Kam Sinha’s lawyer, Satoshi Murata. “If we win,” he claims, “Japanese companies are going to have to take the issue of racism in the workplace more seriously than has been usual up to now.” If they lose, on the other hand, “It is going to make it much less attractive for foreigners, especially Asians, to come to Japan looking for work. Given the gaping labor shortage, and the desperate need for foreign labor to fill the manpower gap, this is a very serious lawsuit indeed.”
The story started in the Summer of 1989 when Kamal Sinha was headhunted by Mitsubishi Electric while teaching systems analysis at the University of Tennessee. The Japanese firm wanted him for his financial training and for his long experience in handling database systems. They offered him a job for life.
Although Kamal Sinha’s American green card had just come through, and he had received a number of higher paying job offers from firms in the United States, he decided to join Mitsubishi Electric because, he says, he was fascinated by what he had read about Japanese companies, and liked the idea of working for a firm that treated its employees like a “family.”
His contract stated that he would be treated in all ways the same as a Japanese lifetime employee and that he would be promoted in step with his age group. He was assured, he claims, that his lack of Japanese-language skills would not be an obstacle.
Once he arrived in Japan, Kamal Sinha wanted to start to work right away on getting to grips with the lingo, but rather than asking his boss directly, he waited for an offer of Japanese-language training to be made to him by his supervisors, as he felt this would be more polite.
No such offer ever came. Since, by this time, he was having to attend departmental meetings each week whose contents left him completely baffled, he was determined to start asking for linguistic help.
He pointed out that he would not be able to do his job properly until he had achieved at least a reasonable level of fluency in Japanese, and asked if the company might be able to help him with the expenses, or at least recommend him a good school.
His boss refused to help him financially, and said he had no idea where to find a language school, or which ones were any good. So Kama Sinhal started looking around himself, only to find that all the schools near where he lived in Kamakura were prohibitively expensive.
The only course he could afford was the daytime program at the YMCA school, but his boss would not allow him to work flextime to attend the lessons, so he ended up commuting two hours each way to a college in Yotsuya, and paying the tuition out of his own pocket.
This would not have irked him so much, he says, if it were not for the fact that Japanese employees of the firm, whose perks he was supposed to share, were receiving English lessons paid for almost entirely by Mitsubishi Electric. What is more, a dozen Caucasians, who joined the company on temporary contracts after Kamal Sinha had arrived, were given a series of Japanese lessons at the most prestigious schools all at company expense.
Kamal Sinha was sent to a separate building, where the company housed its foreign-made computers, and was given an IBM to test. The manuals they provided him were all written in Japanese, which he could not read, so he asked his boss for some materials in English. He was refused.
After four months in the company, Kamal Sinha says he was told to understand departmental meetings. After seven months he was asked to start submitting reports in Japanese.
When he protested that this was impossible without some kind of help with the cost of language training, he claims his boss told him to “go and learn Japanese by watching television, like the other Pakistanis and Indians do.”
Kamal Sinha began to complain that he was not being treated fairly, and this was when, he alleges, his co-workers began to harass him.
He had managed to squeeze one small concession out of his section chief. By pointing out that some of the Caucasian staff at Mitsubishi Electric were getting 100 hours paid study time during office hours, he managed to convince his boss that he needed an hour a day to pore over his Kanji (Chinese characters) books, at his desk.
Shortly after he began studying in the office, he says, the department head started to take a detour every time he left the room so that he walked right past Kamal Sinha’s desk, and was able to peer over his shoulder.
One day he stopped, pointed at the kanji for shigoto on one of Kamal Sinha’s vocabulary lists, and asked him what it meant. Kamal Sinha didn’t know that Kanji yet, so the boss informed him that it meant “work.”
After a meaningful glance, he then went on to add in a low voice that when Japanese workers are transferred to the United States, they do not pursue their own private studies during office hours.
“After that, things started getting really serious,” explained Kamal Sinha. “There was suddenly enormous pressure to understand Japanese perfectly, co-workers started dressing me down for not being fluent, and a labor union official threatened me to my face that he was going to force me to quit.”
The harassment carried on, Kamal Sinha alleges. The deputy chief of the section asked him to vacate his company-provided apartment, on the grounds that unmarried Japanese employees did not enjoy such perks. This was despite an agreement made before Kamal came to Japan, that he would be provided with a flat at company expense.
After several months of negotiations with the firm, Kamal Sinha finally gave up on the concilitary approach, and decided to sue. On July 21st, he filed a claim for 5.9 million yen in damages, at the Tokyo District Court.
Kamal Sinha’s Japanese lawyer is remarkably confident about his client’s chances in court. Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution forbids discrimination because of race in politics or society, and the Labor Standards Law admonishes employers not to treat workers differently because of their nationality. The company has clearly acted in breach of both of these, says Murata, but these are not the only grounds they have to stand on. The Labor Standards Law is more or less toothless, but in Kamal Sinha’s case there is a contract which has clearly been broken, as well.
These factors combined, asserts Murata, will probably tip the scales in his client’s favor.
Working against Kamal Sinha, however, is the notorious difficulty of suing any Japanese company, let alone a corporate giant like Mitsubishi. The plaintiff himself is aware that he is attempting something very few people have ever managed before, but this does not scare him.
Kamal Sinha is in the fortunate position of having a green card and a number of job offers in America. This gives him the security he needs to pursue his case without worrying about being destitute if he gets fired.
Most other Asians are not so fortunate, which is probably why there never has been a suit like this brought against an employer before in Japan. According to Murata, most of the victims of discrimination come from relatively poor countries and are afraid to sue.
“They run the risk of losing their jobs,” he explains, “and if they do, they probably lose their visas as well, and end up going back home to a country where it is impossible to earn the kind of money they were making in Japan.” In fact, they may well be sending money home to support their entire family.
Kamal Sinha puts it more bitterly: “When Japanese people see an Indian, they tend to think ‘$29 a month working on a tea plantation’ and they assume you must be grateful for any kind of work at all in Japan, so you shouldn’t complain.”
People from the wealthier nations of Europe and America, who whould be less afraid to kiss up a fuss, tend not to suffer the same blatant racism in Japan as Asians do, especially if they are Caucasian. European and Americans are occasionally subjected to sexual discrimination, Murata suggests, and come to him with complaints about money, but never seem to experience the kind of treatment that his new client Kamal describes.
The case is being carefully watched by the foreign community in Japan, especially the Asian part. A Bangladeshi working for a Japanese computer firm, who preferred not to be named, said that the kind of problems Kamal Sinha describes are “widespread” and that he was doing a valuable service to other foreign executives by taking this issue to court.
The press, too, has shown a great deal of interest, both in Japan and abroad. All the major Indian newspapers are reporting on the case, as the fortunes of India’s thousands of migrant workers are a matter of great interest to the reading public there. The outcome of this case will naturally influence the decisions of numerous other Indian professionals coming to Japan to further their careers.
The case will probably take one or two years to reach a conclusion but Murata thinks its effects will last much longer.
Victory for Kamal Sinha for example, would mean that Japanese companies would have to start taking concrete steps to educate their staff about racism and completely overhaul their training programs for foreign workers, not to mention instituting new sensitivity training courses for workers going abroad.
Mitsubishi Electric officials, meanwhile, are maintaining their innocence in this case, claiming that the whole affair was “an unfortunate misunderstanding.”
“It was our intention to provide Mr. [name removed] with opportunities for training and a chance to make use of his abilities in the long term,” said a spokesperson for the firm, “but he failed to understand this, and so, unfortunately, has brought this case against us.”
The company would prefer to wait until the facts have been established before making any further comments, he added, but in the meanwhile, they are doing their best to make Kamal Sinha understand their point of view.