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Japan: Supreme Court Upholds Punishment for Sexual Harassment

(Mar. 2, 2015) On February 26, 2015, Japan’s Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Osaka High Court, which had itself reversed an Osaka District Court judgment approving suspension and demotion as punishments for two male managers who repeatedly verbally sexually harassed female employees. (2014 (Ju) No. 1310, S. Ct., 1st petite bench (Feb. 26, 2015), Courts of Japan database http://www.courts.go.jp/app/files/hanrei_jp/883/084883_hanrei.pdf (in Japanese).) The decision is the first of its kind by the Supreme Court. (Top Court Backs Kaiyukan on Sex Harassment Suspensions, JAPAN TIMES (Feb. 26, 2015).)

Facts of the Case

The employer “suspended one man for 30 days and the other for 10 days and demoted both in February 2012 over remarks they made to two temporary female employees.” (Id.) All three courts found that the men, who had managerial positions, committed sexual harassment. The two men repeatedly made sexual comments, including recounting a story to the women about extramarital sex and the strength of their sexual urges. They also asked the female employees why they were single, after asking their ages. (Supreme Court Decided “Valid,” Punishment for “Not Yet Married” Statement, YOMIURI NEWSPAPER (Feb. 26, 2015) (in Japanese).)

District Court Judgment

The two men filed a lawsuit to contest the penalties with the Osaka District Court, complaining that the employer had abused its authority by imposing too heavy a punishment without any advance warning. The District Court ruled that the penalties were appropriate, finding that the managers’ comments were obscene and malicious. It also stated that the women were in a particularly vulnerable position because they were temporary employees. (Top Court Backs Kaiyukan on Sex Harassment Suspensions, supra.)

High Court Ruling

The Osaka High Court found that the reason why the managers misunderstood that their behavior was inappropriate was because the victims never explicitly complained to them about it. The High Court also found that the managers did not know about the company’s firm policy against sexual harassment and that the company did not give them warnings. Therefore, the High Court decided that the punishment was too harsh and that the company had abused its authority. (2014 (Ju) No. 1310, supra, at 6-7.)

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court understood that it was hard for the victims to protest because of their fear of retaliation. The Supreme Court also found that the company had let all employees know that sexual harassment was not tolerated, through mandatory classes and in brochures. (Id. at 8.)

Further, the Court found that the managers usually made inappropriate comments when other people were not around. The company did not have the opportunity to give the managers a warning until the victims voiced their complaints to the company after the harassment had persisted for more than one year. Under such a situation, the Court held, the lack of warnings did not help the managers’ claims. (Id. at 8-9.) The Supreme Court therefore ruled that the original penalties were appropriate.