In conformist Japan, workers find courage to expose illegal actions

A policeman who blew the whistle on colleagues' fake expenses gets compensation.

It's not easy for an individual to call attention to illegal or unethical behavior in the workplace in any culture. But in Japan, where conformity is seen as a virtue, it can be especially difficult.

When officer Toshiro Semba revealed that his bosses in the police department were forging receipts in order to wine and dine on the public's money, they took his gun away.

He was decreed too emotionally unstable to carry a weapon – a humiliation, he says, designed to corner him into quitting. For 500 days, he was ordered to sit alone in a tiny room at the Ehime Prefectural Police.

"I became a policeman because I wanted to help powerless people. But when I got in, I learned it was totally different," says Mr. Semba.

He was passed over for promotions after he refused to fake receipts and is still a sergeant after 34 years. "I wear that title proudly — like a medal," Semba says.

Whistle-blowers like Semba have been especially solitary in Japan, where conformity and respect for hierarchy are venerated as tradition. They have been labeled as traitors.

But that attitude is gradually changing. As Japan modernizes, people increasingly see themselves as individuals and consumers, with a duty to speak up against wrongdoing.

In fact, whistle-blowers are behind the spate of recent scandals embroiling a pastrymaker that forged manufacturing dates, a builder that cheated on fireproofing tests, and a meat processor that sold a mixture of meats and chicken as pure ground beef.

Reports to the government of suspicious food manufacturing, nearly all from insiders, have skyrocketed from some 100 a month last year to 697 last month, food safety official Yosuke Abe says.

Policeman Semba won personal vindication in September when a court awarded him $8,800 in damages, ruling that his on-the-job treatment was retaliation for his 2004 exposure of police corruption. The police are appealing the ruling. Semba couldn't hold back tears when his court ruling was read. "I felt there's justice in this world," he says.

Although the award is small by American standards, it is a major victory in Japan, where court-ordered damage compensation tends to be minimal and the value of whistle-blowers is only starting to be recognized.

The first law to protect whistle-blowers passed last year, but critics say it's inadequate. It requires whistle-blowers to first tell their employer and wait before going public if they hope to get any protection.

Whistle-blowers have been rare because Japanese companies, even major ones, are run like families, and individual workers don't see themselves as hired by contract as do American workers, says Koji Igata, business administration professor at Osaka University of Economics. "Whistle-blowers are seen as eccentrics who've turned on their parents," he says.

Japan modernized over the past half-century by fostering corporate loyalty in return for secure employment. So when a company runs into trouble, good workers are expected to defend it; exposing wrongdoing is viewed as betrayal.

Only in recent years, as Japanese companies hire lower-paid younger workers and drop job guarantees in response to global competition, has the idea of criticizing an employer started to catch on, says Professor Igata.

An influx of part-time workers has also contributed to eroding the ties of loyalty. Akafuku, the pastrymaker targeted as a result of a whistle-blower, employed about 250 part-time workers, half of its workforce. It was shut down after it was found to be reselling unsold pastries shipped back from stores as new ones.

Calls to strengthen corporate ethics are on the rise, partly from grass-roots movements but also from companies eager to catch up with the rest of the world in governance standards.

Semba, still a railway policeman, says he is donating his lawsuit money to an ombudsman charity because money was never the goal of his battle.

But what made it all worth it was an elderly woman who recognized him at a highway rest stop where he had stopped for a cup of coffee.

"She told me, 'You made sacrifices for us. I must thank you,' " he says. "She understood everything."

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