The Mainichi Daily News
April 19, 1999
The back-wages of sin
To the Editor:
Japanese people often ask me what I think of Japan.
When I think they really want to know, I tell them about one day here I
will never forget: Dec. 26, 1994. That was the day I and a group of
employees I had organized were supposed to receive three months in back
wages in the Utsunomiya, Tochigi courthouse at 11:00 a.m.
But 11:00 came and went, and it wasn't until late afternoon when the
man who had refused to pay us stood in a hallway of the courthouse
facing me, holding a briefcase filled with our money – refusing to open
it and hand out the dough. The lawyers we had hired then met with him
in private, later informing us that he demanded that we promise to keep
quiet about having to take his company to court in order to get paid.
Negotiations continued, and the stress from months of not being paid in
a foreign country was reaching a climax in the courthouse, with some of
my group in tears. Eventually, under strong pressure from my fellow
plaintiffs, our lawyers and the judge, I agreed to "refrain from doing
serious damage to the company's reputation." If I didn't agree to this
vague clause, I was told by my lawyers, we wouldn't get paid.
So we finally got our money, and the man whose company we had taken to
court continued doing business, while his companies hired new employees
through a broker overseas and through want ads in Japanese newspapers.
But with a new group of employees, the same company we had taken to
court stopped paying wages again. After I introduced these employees
to one of our lawyers, the company was sued a second time for three
months in back wages. This time, however, no one showed up to
represent the company in the courthouse, and the company ignored the
court order to pay.
Finally, the government paid a
percentage of those employees' wages, but I recently heard that the
landlords of the company's branch offices have still not received their
rent – which is as much as a year in arrears.
According to copies of the company's business registration I recently
obtained, the company is still legally operating (though it is not
currently doing business). Furthermore, the man who had refused to pay
us is still legally responsible for the company's name. Meanwhile, he
continues to run other businesses in Utsunomiya, one of which is an
"international" senmon gakko
(vocational school) in the city's Motoimaizumi district – where he had me teach English when he wasn't paying us.
I will always remember the tears on the faces of people who weren't
being paid when I think of Japan's internationalization program. But I
suspect the man who held tightly to the briefcase filled with his
employees wages laughs when he thinks about it. He has good reason to
laugh – because Japan's internationalization program, like its system
of justice, seems like some kind of cruel joke.