In Japan, work comes first. For most people, their professional life takes priority over their family, romantic, and personal lives, with long hours and short vacations being the norm.
Given that environment, it’s no surprise that after their shift ends, many people want to stop off at a bar for a cold beer to wash the taste of work out of their mouth. For a one-month period, though, that wasn’t an option for civil servants in Fukuoka City, due to a temporary ban on drinking outside their homes. Obviously, this wasn’t a popular rule among workers, and one man was so upset he’s now suing the city, asking for a single yen in compensation.
When Soichiro Takashima spent his first day in the mayor’s chair in 2010, Fukuoka was less than five years removed from a tragic drunk-driving accident that had claimed the lives of three young children. On August 25, 2006, an inebriated city employee driving on the Umi no Nakamichi Ohashi Bridge rear-ended the car in front of him, sending it plummeting into Hakata Bay. While the two adult occupants survived, their children did not. Citizens were further outraged to hear that the city employee had tried to flee the scene, before being caught and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Wanting to regain the public trust after this scandal, Takashima couldn’t have been pleased when, in two separate incidents in early 2012, a member of the Fukuoka fire department and the vice-principal of an elementary school within the city were caught driving under the influence. The livid mayor declared, “To put a stop to the climate of drinking and improper behavior emanating from City Hall, shock therapy is necessary.”
This was followed by a notice to the 10,000-plus city employees and educators, explaining that for the month of May 2012, consumption of alcohol at restaurants, bars, and homes of friends’ and acquaintances was fundamentally prohibited. An exception was made for wedding ceremonies, but for other functions where the employees’ attendance was required but alcohol was being served, they were strongly encouraged to opt for soft drinks such as oolong tea instead. Employees caught violating the instructions would be “dealt with directly by the mayor or bureau heads,” the statement cautioned.
It’s that last part that rubbed one unnamed city employee the wrong way, and the man is now suing on the grounds that the directive was a violation of his rights. “My constitutionally guaranteed freedoms were infringed upon, which resulted in great mental suffering,” he claims. While the city is maintaining its stance that the no-alcohol policy was merely an advisory suggestion, the plaintiff argues that the disciplinary action it alludes to brings it to the level of an outright ban.
Opening statements for the case were heard at the Fukuoka district court on September 16. “The decision to drink outside of working hours is an individual freedom,” the plaintiff asserted. In a written response, the city stood its ground that its actions had “a logical, reasonable basis as a component of a plan to avoid loss of public trust in city employees.”
So why is the plaintiff asking for just a single yen? Part of his reasoning is practical, as he admits that putting a monetary value on the emotional distress he experienced is difficult. More importantly, though, he’s been quite open that he isn’t looking to get rich through these legal proceedings. “My aim is not money,” he has said, instead
making it clear that his goal is “to have official judgment as to whether or not the mayor’s order was illegal.”
Should he win, one yen may not be anywhere near enough to pay for a victory drink, but for the plaintiff, it’s likely satisfaction would taste as good as any ice-cold brew.