A Japanese city official has been docked half a day’s pay for repeatedly leaving his desk for a few minutes, sparking a heated debate on social media over the severity of the punishment.
The 64-year-old man, who has not been identified, is employed by the waterworks bureau in Kobe, according to bureau officials who gave a televised press conference last week to apologize for the employee’s actions.
The man had left his desk for three minutes to buy a takeaway bento lunch box before his lunch time started. He did this 26 times over a seven-month period.
As a punishment, he was reprimanded and docked half a day’s pay.
“It is very regrettable that such misconduct took place,” a bureau official said. “We deeply apologize for it.”
All four officials at the press conference then stood and bowed deeply.
The event quickly drew ridicule and fierce criticism on social media, with people commenting on the excessive nature of the punishment.
One Twitter user wrote, “It’s tough life nowadays. No tea break, no cigarette break, no chatting.”
Another remarked sarcastically, “You should round up smokers who step out for three minutes.”
The backlash didn’t go unnoticed.
“We have received opinion this time from both directions, such as the reprimand was too much,” Gen Oka, the general affairs officer at the waterworks bureau, told CNN. “We must think again what’s the appropriate measures to take.”
However, Oka explained that the bureau had taken action because “we were bound to the public servant duty to spend the working hours for our duty.”
This incident reflects larger ongoing issues within Japan’s “salaryman” culture, which has come under fire following the 2015 suicide of a 24-year-old employee at a major advertising company.
Tokyo officials recognized the case of Matsuri Takahashi as one of “karoshi”: death by overwork. According to authorities, she had clocked around 105 hours of overtime in the month leading up to her suicide.
Takahashi is hardly the first victim of this relentless work culture. The term “karoshi” has been around since the 1970s, during Japan’s economic boom, and labor activists have been pushing for change since the 1980s.
Their efforts resulted in a 2014 law that called for better working conditions but didn’t force companies to actually do anything, according to experts.
Many have said stronger legislation is needed, such as strict limits on how much employees can safely work, and heavy fines for companies that break the rules.
Dentsu, the company where Takahashi had worked, has since reduced overtime to a maximum of 65 hours per month.
However, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been working to pass controversial labor laws which will exempt certain professional workers from work hour limits and overtime regulations.
On Wednesday, Japan’s Parliament voted to extend its session until July 22 to pass the bill.
This story has been updated to clarify the time period.