Photo/IllutrationYukimi Takahashi in her daughter’s room with an altar and her mementos at her home in Shizuoka Prefecture on June 20 (Satoru Semba)

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  • Photo/Illustraion

A mother committed to changing Japanese corporate culture after her overworked daughter's death by suicide in 2015 expressed deep disappointment with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over his haste to enact contentious labor reform legislation.

“It turns out the prime minister does not share my concerns” about more deaths resulting from overwork, Yukimi Takahashi said in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

Takahashi has been active in sounding the alarm against a provision in the package of bills that would lift work-hour regulations for higher-income professionals.

Her daughter, Matsuri Takahashi, was 24 years old when she took her life in December 2015, unable to cope with the grueling work hours at advertising giant Dentsu Inc., which she joined earlier that year.

She put in more than 100 hours of overtime in one month, and nearly 100 hours in others. Labor authorities recognized her death as “karoshi,” or death from overwork, in September 2016.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is poised to railroad a package of labor reform bills through the Diet as early as this month despite mounting objections from opposition parties and critics.

Takahashi met with the prime minister on Feb. 21 last year at his office in Tokyo to convey her gratitude for a letter and flowers he sent Dec. 25, 2016, to mark the first anniversary of her daughter’s death.

The meeting came as Abe and others were in the final stage of fleshing out proposed changes to work practices in corporate Japan, which served as the draft for the package of work-related reform bills now under discussion in the Diet.

Takahashi poured out her heart over the aching loss she felt over her daughter's death and her determination to make sure it was not in vain by championing a fundamental change in the nation's work culture, where long hours have long been accepted as the norm.

After browsing through Matsuri’s photo album, she said Abe pledged to follow through with reforms at any cost.

To her mind, Abe took her concerns seriously. She handed him a letter in which she expressed her hope that the initiative will lead to improved worker welfare.

The reform package includes a bill to put an upper limit on overtime and a penalty for employers who violate it.

But the most controversial segment allows for the introduction of a “highly skilled professionals” system, which exempts higher-income professionals from work-hour regulations. Takahashi, along with bereaved families of other karoshi victims, are demanding that provision be deleted from the package.

Takahashi said in the letter, “Exempting certain workers from regulations that are supposed to protect their lives and health cannot be allowed.

“Japan has become a country that makes its people work until they die for its economic development. Please learn from my daughter’s death. It cannot be undone.”

The prime minister repeatedly pledged in Diet sessions and other venues to take action to ensure that karoshi incidents never happen again.

Takahashi closely monitored the government’s moves to gauge whether Abe is serious about his commitment to the pledge.

The “highly skilled professionals” system was incorporated into the package of bills after the Diet session that began in January.

The government has tried to play down the perceived risks of allowing businesses to introduce the system.

For example, it said the system would eliminate work-hour regulations only for those earning at least 10.75 million yen ($98,000) annually and that the type of job where the system will be applied will be restricted.

The government maintains that karoshi will be preventable under the new system as it intends to require businesses to put appropriate measures in place to secure their employees’ health.

But Takahashi is not convinced by the government’s argument. She fears the legislation will only contribute to more cases of death from overwork.

At Dentsu, some high-flying young employees earn around 10 million yen annually.

If the “highly skilled professionals” system is introduced, having an employee put in more than 100 hours in monthly overtime, like her daughter did, will not be illegal.

In an extreme case, having employees work 24 hours a day for 24 days will not be illegal as long as they take four days off over four weeks, labor experts say.

Takahashi said Abe has been evasive about answering critics’ concerns that the system will further contribute to long work hours prevalent in Japanese companies.

The prime minister contends that the legislation offers the option of "varied and flexible work styles.”

However, Abe has shunned overtures from the bereaved families of karoshi victims to meet with them.

“The prime minister’s attitude is in conflict with his vow not to let karoshi happen again,” she said.

Asked if she had a message for Abe, Takahashi responded: “If you are serious about pressing ahead with reforming the nation's work culture, the current Diet session will not be the last time this issue is debated. Even after the end of the Diet session, you will surely have to continue pushing labor reform until karoshi disappears from our culture forever.”

(This article was written by Shun Niekawa and Takuro Chiba.)