Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Suicide Symbolic in Japan Older Workers `Restructured' Out

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Suicide Symbolic in Japan Older Workers `Restructured' Out

Article excerpt

TOKYO -- After nearly 40 years on the job, Masaharu Nonaka felt he was getting the squeeze. His bosses at Bridgestone Sports Co. demoted him, cut his salary and then offered him early retirement.

He did not go quietly.

"I think the best way is to die . . . in anger," Nonaka, 58, wrote in a protest letter sent to the Japanese media in February.

It was no idle threat. A month later he stormed into parent company Bridgestone Corp., protested to President Yoichiro Kaizaki and stabbed himself to death with a kitchen knife.

All over Japan, older workers are being prodded -- some say bullied -- into early retirement. Companies say the staff cuts are a last resort, but for people like Nonaka, trained for decades to skip meals, brave fatigue and forgo vacations in return for a job for life, it's like being excommunicated by their families.

The restructuring is born out of necessity.

Japan is battling its deepest, most persistent recession since the end of World War II, and many top-flight corporations are grappling with hefty losses. Electronics giant NEC Corp. is cutting 15,000 jobs over the next three years, and Sony Corp. is cutting 17,000 jobs and closing factories.

"Japanese white-collar workers . . . are dependent on their companies. The company is like a community," said Kiyotsugu Shitara, head of the Tokyo Manager's Union. "But these days, employers are beginning to say that no longer exists."

Nonaka's career is a record of the changing times.

He joined Bridgestone -- now one of the world's premier tiremakers -- in 1959, just as Japan's economy was about to take off. Lifetime employment was taken for granted. In 1992, he was transferred to Bridgestone Sports, where he headed the general affairs department.

In the meantime, business practices were changing at Bridgestone.

The company bought Firestone of the United States and went on a campaign to trim the fat and compete globally. By last year, the company had cut 3,700 jobs from its 1992 staff of 16,300.

Nonaka was caught in that wave. In 1997, when he hit the company's management retirement age of 56, the pressure was on. …

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