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

A recent court ruling on a school teacher’s lawsuit over unpaid overtime should lead to reform of the dismal working conditions of the job.

School executives and parents as well as the national and local governments should recognize the ruling as a serious warning about the long-ignored issue and as an urgent call for improvement.

The Saitama District Court rejected claims by a public elementary school teacher in the prefecture that not providing overtime pay on actual working hours was illegal.

Although the ruling turned down the teacher’s demands for 2.4 million yen ($22,000) in compensation from the Saitama prefectural government, the court drew public attention for taking exception to the system.

Teachers are required to carry out a wide range of tasks, and they have broad discretion over what they actually do and how they do it.

The government uses a special remuneration system for public school teachers based on the assumption that it is difficult to accurately track the number of hours they spend on their duties and tasks. The system basically does not pay overtime but adds a flat 4 percent of the basic monthly salaries to their compensation.

The district court rejected the plaintiff’s demand based on a special measures law governing teachers’ salaries enacted in 1971. The ruling pointed out that the teacher could have carried out various tasks by using time between classes.

There are many questionable elements in the court decision. For example, it mechanically added up the estimated minutes required for various teaching-related duties but excluded a broad range of tasks the plaintiff conducted on his own from his actual working hours.

At the same time, Presiding Judge Yosuke Ishigaki acknowledged that the law prescribing the salaries of teachers is no longer rooted in the reality of how teachers work.

Ishigaki said he “ardently” hoped for reforms of the ways teachers’ working hours are managed and how they are remunerated.

Japanese teachers generally work much longer than their peers in many other countries.

A 2016 survey by the education ministry found that 30 percent of elementary school teachers and 60 percent of junior high school teachers worked 80 or more extra hours per month.

The government recognizes more than 80 hours of overtime a month as a risk factor for “karoshi,” or death from overwork, calling the threshold the “karoshi line.”

In addition to teaching classes, teachers must make learning materials and various documents, supervise club activities, deal with parents, and perform other tasks.

The teacher salary law was established at a time when the average overtime put in by teachers was only eight hours per month. The law has been long criticized for being divorced from reality.

The government partly revised the law in 2019, introducing a system to allow teachers to take a series of paid days off during summer and other breaks. They usually must work long hours and cannot take leave during busy seasons.

The government has also set guidelines for working conditions that put an upper limit of 45 hours on monthly overtime.

But these steps are far from a fundamental solution.

While the issue of pay is important, excessive work is a serious problem that could undermine the mental and physical health of workers.

Unless teachers are highly motivated without feeling stressed out when they teach classes, their performances could suffer, leading to negative consequences for the children’s education.

The tough working conditions of teachers are widely known, and a declining number of young people are pursuing teaching careers.

As Asahi Shimbun editorials have argued time and again, more should be done to streamline and reduce the endless flow of teachers’ nonessential duties, make wider use of information technology and tap outside human resources.

The education ministry plans to conduct a survey on teachers’ working conditions in fiscal 2022. The survey will offer a good opportunity for the government to assess the results of the changes made in 2019 and start a policy coordination process to revise the law further and secure necessary funds for improvement.

The court’s warning should be taken seriously.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 7