Special To Asahi Evening News
This is the first installment of a weekly column covering a range legal issues affecting people who live in Japan. The character Jane will feature in all stories.

Q: Jane, who worked for a Japanese company, was told by her boss: "You're fired. Since you are a foreigner, you are not protected under Japanese laws." Stunned, she refused to believe the company could let her go so easily while she was still under contract. Can you really dismiss non-Japanese employees just like that?

A: Of course not. The Japanese labor Standards law prohibits discrimination of employees by reason of nationality, creed or social status. This is true regardless of the visa status of the foreign employee. According to legal precedents in Japan, an employer must have a justifiable reason to discharge an employee.

Q: Then what could she do legally to prevent her boss from firing her without justifiable cause?

A: She should go to the local labor standards inspection office or take the case to court.

Q: In Jane's case, she naturally asked why her boss wanted to fire her. But he did not explain, except to say in general terns that lie was unhappy with her work performance. She got upset during the conversation and slapped her boss in the face. Can that constitute justifiable reason for him to discharge her?

A: Probably not. Courts apply quite stringent conditions to justifiable dismissal and generally rule in favor of the employee. I am not saying that violence can be justified in any way. I just put things in a legal perspective.

Q: Can you be more specific?

A: In Japan, it is extremely difficult for employers to fire their employees.
For example, a workerÕs incompetence is usually not considered a justifiable reason as such. This case is a little more complicated because it involved violence, and there have been several cases where the court determined whether violent conduct by an employee justified the discharge. Let me cite two Supreme Court rulings that are relevant to this case:

The first ruling, which was handed down in 1979, concerned an automaker that discharged an assembly worker because of a violent act. According to the court, the assembly worker got into a quarrel with a colleague and hit that person several times with his fist and the palm of his open hand. The court determined that the case did not constitute a major assault and that there had not been any previous episodes of violence concerning the worker. Thus, the dismissal was unjust.

The second court ruling, which occurred in 1983, concerned a manufacturing company that discharged an employee due to repeated acts of violence that left several people injured. The employee was arrested by police, while participating in an anti-government demonstration. When he was released from three weeks in detention, lie discovered that his job on the assembly line had been filled due to reorganization. The company instructed him to stay at home until it decided on new position. Despite being ordered to do so, the employee broke into the company's premises on more than 10 occasions and injured several guards who tried to stop him. The court upheld the company's grounds for dismissal.
Although the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the company in the second ruling, the court of the first instance (Osaka District Court) and the court of the second instance (Osaka high Court) both favored the employee's argument that the company had overstepped its rights. So, it was not a simple case.
As you can see, the company involved in Jane's situation would probably not be able to discharge her unless it finds other reasons supporting dismissal.

Q: I did not realize that an employee's violent acts can be tolerated. What is your explanation for this?

A: A strong trend of legal precedents requiring justifiable reason for discharge is closely related to Japan's lifetime employment system. But you must appreciate that, due to the drastic change in the employment environment that Japan is now experiencing, courts are likely to change their position in the near future. Just for safety's sake, I would like to make it clear that the court cases I cited do not in any way condone violence. The person who committed acts of violence may be subject to civil and criminal action. Even when dismissal is overturned, a company may take other disciplinary steps such as pay cuts and demotion.

The author, Jun Norisugi, is a practicing lawyer at Norisugi & Associates and specializes in international business affairs.