During Japan’s post-war economic miracle, death from overwork became such a prevalent phenomenon that it generated its own grim buzzword, “karoshi”. Sadly, karoshi is still with us today as evidenced by the death of a young woman back in 2015 which hit the headlines when it was revealed that she had taken her own life after being forced to log over 100 hours of overtime at top advertising firm Dentsu in the months before she died. Despite comparatively advanced labour law, a culture of shame and entrenched corporate loyalty often prevent employees from speaking out about exploitative workplace practices, allowing unscrupulous bosses to flout the rules with impunity. So-called “Black Companies” bully and manipulate employees into accepting poor pay and conditions rather than risk dismissal or defacto blacklisting. 

Following the suicide of a close friend who took his own life because of workplace bullying, director Tokachi Tsuchiya documents the case of another young man who decided to fight back after being awakened to the fact that the practices at his company were not fair, normal, or acceptable but cynical and exploitative. Nishimura, known for the moment under an alias, left a job as a systems engineer to work at one of Japan’s best known moving companies because it promised a good, stable salary and he wanted to get married. What he discovered, however, was that the advertising was somewhat disingenuous. After working hard and getting a promotion to the sales department and subsequently into management, he was expected to work 19-hour days. His relationship with his wife suffered to the degree that she eventually left him. They later reconciled, but it became clear that his working life was not healthy or sustainable. He took a demotion back to sales and remained a top employee. 

Disaster struck, however, when he was involved in a fatigue-induced traffic accident while driving a company car. The moving company, like many other corporate entities, is run like a shady cult with its own idiosyncratic corporate policies that are often in contravention of standard employment law. After damaging the company car, Nishimura is liable for paying compensation with a significant sum of money due to be docked from his pay. Thoroughly brainwashed, he signed for the debt without thinking, only questioning his liability when his wife handed him an article about another employee in much the same position who’d turned to an external union for help. Hearing the patient explanations from the union advisors who tell him he doesn’t need to pay, Nishimura is suddenly awakened to the fact he’s been exploited and decides to stand his ground. The company, however, fight fire with fire. After finding out he’s involved with the union, they demote him to another department with a far lower salary before going further and forcing him to shred documents all day long while wearing an orange polo shirt that marks him out as a special employee. 

This kind of treatment is a common method of constructive dismissal practiced by Japanese companies in which they force “difficult” employees to perform boring, menial, or degrading tasks while separating them from the group in the hope that they will eventually quit of their own accord so the company won’t be liable for any severance benefits they would otherwise be entitled to. Nishimura, however, does not quit. He throws himself into union activities and views sticking it out as a way of sticking it to the man. What he wants is his sales job back, but he also wants to prove to other employees that the way they’re being treated isn’t normal and that they can resist by joining a union and presenting a united front against exploitative employers. 

Looking back on his recruitment process, Nishimura notices several red flags he did not pick up on at the time.The kinds of people the company never hire include those who are familiar with labour law, people who’ve run businesses, people who’ve worked in law enforcement, and “communist” lawyers. Along with that, they apparently don’t hire “third country nationals” which seems to be a euphemism for Zainichi Koreans, illegal discrimination from a managerial team former employees describe as being vehemently racist as well as prejudiced against burakumin and other groups considered undesirable under a decidedly outdated idea of feudal social hierarchy. Nishimura feels his demotion was not so much to do with the accident, but with his decision to join the union in another breach of conventional employment law. 

The managers attempt to silence the female union negotiator by screaming misogynistic slurs, caught on camera harassing a union rep handing out fliers while using a loudspeaker outside the building. They add Nishimura’s photo to a newsletter as an example not to be followed and even go so far as to send threatening letters to his family members while he is on leave to attend his mother’s funeral. Yet Nishimura bravely refuses to give up, doggedly doing his shredding job as an act of resistance while holding their feet to the fire in the courts. Nishimura’s wife had described him as “brainwashed” in his early devotion to the company which he had earnestly served, wanting to get on and be successful, forcing other employees to pay the onerous fines that he eventually refused to pay because it never occurred to him to question the company line. That questioning is precisely why he continues to resist, so that others will know that collective action really works and that they don’t have to be complicit in their own exploitation. One tiny worker ant said no and the company trembled, think what a thousand tiny worker ants could do together.

An Ant Strikes Back is available to stream worldwide until June 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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