Overwork suspected behind suicide of Mitsubishi Electric young researcher

Updated : 08.05.2017 / Category Economy

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While the suicide of an overworked rookie Dentsu Inc. employee generated plenty of headlines recently in Japan, the case of a talented young researcher of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation who killed himself in November 2016 has created barely a whisper.

The suicide note left by Takashi (not his real name) described the torment he went through at work. "I was squashed by Mitsubishi," he wrote, and, "I was publicly 'executed' in front of everybody." But, Mitsubishi Electric, a leading Japanese electrical and electronics manufacturer, has not revealed any information regarding the 25-year-old employee's death.

Mitsubishi Electric is a company many Japanese science-major students aspire to work at. Takashi was among 911 employees who joined Mitsubishi Electric in April 2016, apparently with high hopes for his future in the company.

Takashi's family in Sendai City in northeastern Japan was notified about his death in the morning of November 17. A Mitsubishi Electric official telephoned his mother and said Takashi had committed suicide at the company's dormitory in Sanda City, Hyogo Prefecture. After his mother identified his body, she was handed a plastic bag containing his personal belongings. Inside the bag was the notebook in which Takashi wrote a four-page suicide note that named three of his bosses at a section dealing with software at the Advanced Technology R&D Center. The note spelled out why Takashi felt so anguished: "When I asked questions about things I didn't understand, he refused to answer them, saying, 'I can't accept open questions.'" "They don't listen to my opinions." "My heart is broken." According to Takashi's notes, his bosses gave him a difficult assignment for a rookie to handle. When Takashi submitted the assignment to two of his bosses, they laughed and said, "What is this?"

His note said, "That assignment should not be given to a person who had never dealt with information technology." Takashi studied communication technology at graduate school, but had little knowledge about programing for software production. Takashi also had to learn a computer language from scratch because Mitsubishi Electric uses one different from those Takashi used at university.

"I am sad to think about leaving my family behind, but I choose death because continuing to work with my bosses [names withheld] would be excruciating. I want the people who drove me to death to be punished. I hope my family will forget me and live happily...I hope Mitsubishi will never forget me. In particular, beware of [name withheld] because he possibly will drive more new recruits to their death."

Forced to engage in 'illegal acts'

Takashi's suicide note, which was studded with technical terms, also alleged wrongdoing by Mitsubishi Electric. "I was forced to do things that did not comply with the law. I am referring to registering bogus numbers of man-hours" needed to complete a project. In 2012, Mitsubishi Electric was found to have padded bills to Japan's Defense Ministry for over 40 years by inflating numbers of man-hours worked. The Advanced Technology R&D Center, to which Takashi belonged, was one of the sections involved in the fraudulent bills. His note indicates Mitsubishi may be continuing the practice even today.

Takashi ordered a dangling exercise apparatus online on November 15, 2016. The apparatus arrived the next day, and Takashi used a rope to hang himself from the device late that night. Takashi visited his family in Sendai two weeks before his death. This writer visited Takashi's father to interview him. "My son really cared about his family," his father said. "He didn't like being in the spotlight, but he had a strong sense of justice and was very serious. When he visited during last year's Golden Week holidays, he took us to dinner. When he came in November, we didn't notice anything unusual. But I remember his younger brother saying to me that when they went for a drive, Takashi was quietly looking at the sky. Thinking about it now, perhaps he wanted to tell us something so badly..."

Takashi's teacher at graduate school reportedly told his father that Takashi should have stayed at university to help him with research if the alternative was to end up costing his life. "I did not try very hard to persuade him to stay because he wanted to find a job so he could repay what he had received from his parents," Takashi's father quoted the teacher as saying. "I should have tried harder to make him stay."

Mitsubishi Electric temporarily deploys rookie employees to a provisional post in around June after they complete a training session. In the second year, the employees get an official assignment. Takashi, too, told his family he would be transferred to a position where he could use the expertise he learned at graduate school.

Industry observers say it is understandable Mitsubishi Electric provisionally sent Takashi to a section dealing with software because communications equipment does need software, but the company's training might have pushed Takashi too far.

Takashi's case cannot be dismissed as an exception. Last November, a former Mitsubishi Electric researcher won worker's compensation, saying he suffered an adjustment disorder as a result of constantly working long hours. His case revealed rampant power harassment and illegal overtime work at a research and development section of Mitsubishi Electric, where more than half of the 34,000-strong workforce are engineers. "His case merely brought the company's rotten core to the surface," said a former Mitsubishi Electric employee.

The former researcher worked at the Information Technology R&D Center in Kamakura City, Kanagawa Prefecture. He was given more work than he could handle, which resulted in working long hours becoming the norm. He was mentally backed into a corner by his boss who berated him in front of his colleagues, an action intentionally ignored by the section chief nearby. The researcher was forced to take sick leave.

Surprisingly, Mitsubishi Electric fired the researcher after the initial sick leave period ended even though he had not fully recovered. After his objection to his dismissal was rejected, he turned to the Labor Standards Inspection Office. "The atmosphere at the workplace resembled a sports-oriented club where a strong fighting spirit and being tough is prized above all else. It was nothing like a research center should be," he said. "I doubted the consultation center within the company would keep my name anonymous, so I didn't go there."

Many major Japanese companies have established a section for whistleblowers and hired an external lawyer to keep their anonymity. Mitsubishi Electric apparently has yet to establish such a system.

This researcher developed an adjustment disorder only a year after being posted to the research center following his rookie training. "If talented young people are run into the ground, it will have serious ramifications on the future of the company," a Mitsubishi Electric insider said. "Years ago, the company valued young researchers as an asset and fostered them with care."

Investigations into Takashi's suicide have yet to start. On its website, Mitsubishi Electric spells out seven guiding principles for the company, including "Establish relationships with society, customers, shareholders, employees, and business partners based on strong mutual trust and respect," and, "In all endeavors, conduct ourselves in compliance with applicable laws and high ethical standards." Not everyone is convinced the company is living up to these principles.

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This is a translation of an article from the May 2017 issue of Sentaku. The original article can be found here.