Photo/Illutration The lead car of the latest model of the Tokaido Shinkansen, the N700S series (Tatsuya Shimada)

The Tokyo District Court on March 27 ordered Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) to pay damages to six employees, including Tokaido Shinkansen drivers, whom it refused to grant the vacation days they requested. 

It ordered JR Tokai to pay the plaintiffs a total of 540,000 yen ($4,130), between 30,000 yen and 200,000 yen each.

The ruling acknowledged that the company “failed to fulfill its duties stated in employment contracts” in operating its paid annual leave system.

JR Tokai immediately appealed the ruling.

At a news conference on March 27 after the verdict, Kazuki Kinoshita, one of the plaintiffs and a Shinkansen driver, said, “The ruling confirms once again the importance of workers’ right to take paid annual leave.”

The Labor Standards Law states that employers must grant employees paid annual leave on the days they wish to take it.

It also says, however, that employers can change their employees' vacation days only when those “interrupt normal business operations.”

According to the ruling, JR Tokai’s Shinkansen crew members were required by the company’s employment regulations and other rules to submit by the 20th day of each month the days of the following month they wished to take paid annual leave.

However, the company didn’t decide whether employees could actually take the paid time off they requested until five days prior to such days.

The crew couldn’t take paid annual leave as they wished in some cases, according to the ruling.

JR Tokai argued in the court hearings that it had no choice but to operate its vacation scheduling system in this manner because it runs extra trains according to the day’s demands.

However, the ruling said that the fair amount of time that passed after the plaintiffs applied for paid annual leave for the following month until the company made them change such applications “exceeded a reasonable period” and “run counter to the consideration of the employees' interests.”

The ruling also said that the company was constantly experiencing staff shortages in fiscal 2015 and 2016, the years in question.

The court concluded that even if the six plaintiffs’ act of taking paid annual leave had had some detrimental effects on JR Tokai’s operations, it was “unacceptable” that the company exerted its right to change the days they took off.

In past court decisions concerning paid annual leave, rulings were often made on individual cases, meaning they were about whether employers had the right to change when employees can take paid annual leave in each such case.

By contrast, in the latest case, the issue was whether JR Tokai’s paid annual leave system itself was appropriate.

The driving force behind the latest lawsuit is the huge seasonal difference in ridership that is unique to the Tokaido Shinkansen.

The company has meticulously compiled the Shinkansen schedules to meet the huge demand for bullet trains by operating a large number of extra trains in the busy periods including the summer “Obon” holiday season, for example.

This flexible manner in planning the Tokaido Shinkansen schedule could be why it is difficult for its crew members to take paid annual leave as they desire.

According to the ruling, JR Tokai decided on the number of trains they operated on a day “to maintain the conditions where passengers could easily book reserved seats.”

It ran as many as 430 trains on a single day, which was about 40 percent more than on a day when it operated the least number of trains.

The plaintiffs argued in the hearings that staff shortages were why they couldn’t take paid annual leave as they requested.

The ruling accepted this argument and ordered the company to pay them damages.

However, it’s difficult for the company to significantly increase the number of its working personnel.

That’s because it faces the need to cut costs, as the spread of remote working driven by the COVID-19 pandemic makes the future of train operations uncertain.

If the ruling is finalized and JR Tokai decides to accept the dates for paid annual leave requested by its employees even if there is not enough staff, the company might be forced to review its Tokaido Shinkansen schedule. 

That could mean that the convenience of the Tokaido bullet train will lessen.

However, JR Tokai's public relations department said, “The ruling won’t affect the operations of the Tokaido Shinkansen.”

(This article was written by Kyota Tanaka, Hisashi Naito and Takehiko Sawaji, senior staff writer.)