Photo/Illutration Supporters for the plaintiff hold up signs outside of Saitama District Court on Oct. 1 calling the day's ruling regarding teachers' pay unprecedented. (Ko Sendo)

A district court judge in Saitama close to Tokyo who rejected a teacher's claim for compensation for unpaid overtime nevertheless acknowledged that teachers were getting a raw deal under a special measures law governing salaries and called for it to be updated to reflect their increased workloads.

Even though the ruling went against the teacher's request for 2.4 million yen ($22,000) in compensation from the Saitama prefectural government, it was hailed as unprecedented for acknowledging that teachers deserve better treatment.

The 62-year-old elementary school teacher in Saitama Prefecture also argued that not providing teachers overtime pay was illegal.

While Presiding Judge Yosuke Ishigaki of the Saitama District Court acknowledged the teacher worked beyond the stipulated eight hours a day and 40 hours a week set as legal working hours under the Labor Standards Law, he said the man was not in a daily position of being unable to complete his tasks unless he put in overtime.

The plaintiff, clearly upset by the ruling, will appeal.

“Why do teachers have to continue to work overtime for free?” he asked at an Oct. 1 news conference. “Our workload is increasing due to the novel coronavirus pandemic and greater use of tablet computers. Is it all right for Japan to not abide by the Labor Standards Law?”

Ishigaki won plaudits in some quarters for raising doubts about whether the special measures law regarding teachers’ pay matched the times.

Under the law, teachers' monthly salaries are topped up by 4 percent in place of overtime pay.

The judge said the law no longer matches current circumstances in which “many teachers are forced to work a certain number of overtime hours based on work instructions given out by school principals.”

Ishigaki also called for a quick review of teachers’ pay to improve the work environment at schools.

During the trial, the plaintiff argued that between September 2017 and July 2018 he logged a large number of overtime hours. Had he not done so, the teacher asserted he would have been unable to complete all the tasks set for him by the school principal.

The court acknowledged that tasks undertaken by the teacher, such as being ordered by the principal to stand watch in the mornings to supervise the arrival of pupils and escort them as they moved between classrooms, should have been counted as overtime.

Including those hours led to the teacher to exceed the legally established number of working hours. The judge even went so far as to say the plaintiff might be able to seek compensation if it turned out the principal was aware that his actions constituted a violation of the Labor Standards Law when he ordered the tasks.

At the same time, the court ruled that the plaintiff worked overtime in only five of the 11 months that he claimed he worked beyond the legal number of hours. And even for the months when overtime was recognized, the court said the plaintiff at most worked 15 hours of overtime. That, the court concluded, meant the teacher did not face a situation of constantly having to work overtime to get his job done.

The judge's conclusion was in line with arguments presented in court by the Saitama prefectural board of education.

Still, the ruling is expected to influence efforts being made by the education ministry to address the issue of teachers’ pay.

“The ruling is important because it touches upon the special measures law,” said Masahito Ogawa, a professor emeritus of school administration at the University of Tokyo. “It will provide momentum for change.”

Ogawa, who earlier compiled a report about teachers’ pay that was submitted to the Central Council for Education, an advisory panel to the education minister, called for an entirely new framework that provided an allowance for overtime as well as allowing teachers to take other days off when they are made to work on holidays.

(This article was written by Tomoki Morishita, Ko Sendo, Shun Niekawa, Shuichi Nimura, Kazuyuki Ito and Yukihito Takahama.)