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Whistleblower: Olympus Ignores Japan Court Order

Mon, 07/29/2013 - 2:22pm
Yuri Kageyama, AP Business Writer

TOKYO (AP) — More than a year after Japan's Supreme Court ordered camera and medical-equipment maker Olympus to stop punishing a whistleblower and reinstate him to his regular job, Masaharu Hamada is still fighting his courtroom battle.

On Monday, he got company.

Another Olympus employee, Yoshihisa Ishikawa, filed a labor lawsuit against Tokyo-based Olympus Corp., demanding 8.8 million yen ($88,000) in damages for psychological stress and harassment — for sending him to work under Hamada.

Ishikawa says the lawsuit is not a critique of Hamada. His lawsuit says his reassignment followed repeated pressure to resign, and the company never gave a reason. Olympus had no immediate comment on Ishikawa's lawsuit, saying it had yet to see it.

Koichi Kozen, the lawyer for both men, says the two cases show the extreme measures that Japanese corporations use when dealing with employees who step outside of highly conformist corporate culture. Some companies have special rooms for unwanted employees to embarrass them into quitting, he said.

Olympus contests Hamada's assertion that it has failed to reinstate him and says it is following the Supreme Court's ruling. Hamada is considered a whistleblower under Japanese law because he was subjected to bizarre and humiliating treatment after questioning possible professional misconduct.

The company has suffered a serious image problem since 2011 because of a whistleblower with an even higher profile, former chief executive and Briton Michael Woodford. He was fired after uncovering dubious accounting at Olympus that covered up massive losses.

Woodford won a 10 million pound (1.2 billion yen, $15.4 million) settlement from Olympus in a British court last year. He had sued alleging unlawful dismissal and discrimination.

Earlier this year, a former Olympus president and two other executives were convicted in a Tokyo court for their role in the cover-up of investment losses, which surfaced after Woodford came forward. They avoided imprisonment. Olympus was fined 700 million yen ($7 million).

Hamada's legal battle began in 2008, when he sued after being ostracized for relaying a supplier's complaint.

He won in the Supreme Court in June last year — Japan's first such whistleblower case. He received 2 million yen ($20,000) in damages.

But more than a year after the ruling, Hamada, a salesman with experience in the U.S., says he has not been awarded his due — placement back in his regular job.

He was recently transferred to a position in quality training, an area in which he has no experience.

Hamada has been back in Tokyo District Court, with a civil lawsuit, demanding Olympus abide by Supreme Court's ruling and place him in a job more appropriate for his background, preferably overseeing corporate compliance. He is seeking 10 million yen ($100,000) in damages.

"Why should Olympus get away with this?" Hamada said. "I am going to have to win a 100 times."

He is delighted to have another Olympus challenger in Ishikawa.

Ishikawa's assignment to work under Hamada happened a few days after Hamada filed a complaint that he did not have any workers under him although his title was "team leader."

Ishikawa, 50, an award-winning engineer with several patents to his name, is not sure why he was targeted, but suspects it may be because he was outspoken and questioned the decisions of his boss.

The corporate culture at Olympus favors subservience and conformity, according to Ishikawa, who says he lost 3 kilograms (7 pounds) in a week from stress. It hurts when you're a hard-working employee to be told you're no longer needed, he said.

"I want to represent all the workers who are suffering like this," he said. "I never asked for lots of money. I never asked for success. All I wanted to do was make good products."

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