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Seiko sued for alleged anti-Japanese bias

Now wait a second: Can a big Japanese watchmaker racially discriminate against a Japanese employee because of her nationality?

A lawsuit filed Tuesday claims it can. It alleges that sales associate Kaoru Parker was ordered to avoid Seiko's high-end New York boutique one day last November so that the allegedly "racist," "sexist," "mean" and "horrible" aunt of Seiko's CEO would not be enraged by the sight of a fellow Japanese woman working there.

Kaoru Parker
Source: Christopher Brennan
Kaoru Parker

The suit says that top company executives believed that major Seiko Holdings shareholder Etsuko Hattori was so bigoted against other Japanese women—and apt to have one fired in the U.S. as she has done in Japan—that they bent over backwards to keep a Japanese sales associate out of her sight during a visit to New York.

Other American employees of the Madison Avenue boutique were there when Hattori visited, according to the suit filed in New York state court. The suit claims the incident made clear to the Japanese native that she would never have the same opportunities to succeed and advance at Seiko as were available to male colleagues.

Parker seeks tens of millions of dollars in damages from defendants including Seiko Corp. of America, Seiko Holdings Corp. CEO Shinji Hattori, and his aunt Etsuko.

A Seiko spokesman, in response to the suit, said: "The events described by Ms. Parker are at odds with the facts as we know them. Seiko is committed to diversity and we have anti-discrimination policies in place to support all of our employees, including Ms. Parker. We expect the legal process will show that her claims are without merit."

"I was just very shocked," Parker said of Seiko's alleged demand that she make herself scarce during Etsuko Hattori's visit. "I feel really disappointed, and sad also."

"I can picture everybody standing, in welcome for this lady, and I couldn't be there. Why? Because I'm Japanese and I'm a woman," Parker said.

Her lawyer, Christopher Brennan, said: "Many aspects of Ms. Parker's lawsuit are disturbing, not the least of which is that in this day and age a woman can be ordered not to report to her job solely due to her race and sex."

"What Seiko did to Ms. Parker is despicable," Brennan said. "It is extremely troubling that a company of Seiko's stature would tell any employee not to come to work due to the racist and sexist beliefs of a company V.I.P."

Parker's suit targets one of Japan's wealthiest people, Etsuko Hattori, and one of its best-known companies.

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Hattori, who owns about 9 percent of Seiko Holdings stock, is considered within the company to be the adoptive mother of Seiko's chief, in addition to being his biological aunt, according to the civil suit. The suit says that Parker was told by Seiko's vice president that Etsuko Hattori was "so powerful" within the company that even Shinji "was afraid of going against her wishes" when it came to defending employees fired at her behest.

Hattori's late husband was Reijiro Hattori, the grandson of the man who founded Seiko in 1881. Reijiro Hattori was ousted from his executive role at the company in 2010 with the help of his nephew Shinji, reportedly because of Reijiro's long-time protection of a top female Seiko director who had been accused of bullying employees for years.

Parker, 52, has lived and worked in the U.S. for more than two decades, and is married to an American. She was hired by Seiko in May as the company was planning to open luxury boutiques in the U.S.

File photo of Shinji Hattori
Sajjad Hussain | AFP | Getty Images
File photo of Shinji Hattori

Her suit says that the first hint that her race was a potential issue for the company came last August, when Seiko hosted a grand opening party for the New York boutique at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.

Parker was invited to that soiree, and bought a dress for it. But a week before the party, Parker "was informed by Seiko that she was no longer invited to attend," the lawsuit said.

The company told her "there was no longer enough room" on the guest list, but Parker later learned that the venue had been "quite large," according to the complaint. Parker now believes that the invitation was rescinded because Seiko executives had become aware that Hattori might attend the party and did not want her to learn that Parker, "a Japanese woman, was employed in a retail sales position," the suit says.

Parker's belief is based on what happened several months later, during a Nov. 20 phone call she had with Seiko Corp. of America executive Takashi Aoki, who is among the defendants, along with his boss, Yoshikatsu Kawada.

Before that call, the suit says, Aoki and Kawada would regularly visit and phone the store. They would also speak to Parker in Japanese, which made her uncomfortable because she felt she was being rude to her American boss at the store and other co-workers who were not Japanese.

"Aoki prefaced the next part of the conversation [during the call] by saying that he had been speaking with defendant Kawada and they both agreed that it was necessary to tell Ms. Parker 'a very rude story,'" according to the suit.

Aoki told Parker that he and Kawada wanted her not to go into work two days later when Hattori was due to arrive to inspect the new store.

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Aoki described the Seiko matriarch Hattori to Parker "as a mean, horrible, very difficult, prejudiced, racist and rude person," during the call, the suit claims.

He told Parker that in other inspections of Seiko retail locations in Japan and elsewhere, Hattori "demonstrated a deep-seated and harsh prejudice against Japanese female Seiko employees by berating and humiliating them even when such employees provided excellent customer service," the suit said.

"Aoki informed Ms. Parker that is it was not unusual for defendant Hattori to order Seiko management to summarily fire Japanese female Seiko employees during such inspections," the suit said.

Aoki told Parker "it was common" for Hattori to visit the Seiko location in a high-end Tokyo department store "as often as three times a week for the sole purpose of berating the Japanese female sale representatives," according to the suit.

In contrast, Aoki told her, Hattori "was mild and respectful toward 'Western people' who worked for Seiko," the suit claims.

Parker did skip work Nov. 22, when Hattori visited, "after fearing she would lose her job if she refused Seiko's directive."

But that was only after much agonizing and what Parker says were conflicting signals from the company.

Aoki and Kawada failed to first tell Parker's immediate superior at the store, manager Jim Turi, that they didn't want her there during Hattori's visit, the suit claims.

When Parker told Turi about the Aoki's instruction that she take the day off, and the rationale for that order, Turi told her he would take her off the schedule, the suit said.

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But a female co-worker who overheard their conversation said to Turi, "They are telling Kaoru she has to disappear. That is not right," according to the suit.

In a call from Aoki shortly after the first one on Nov. 20, the suit said, he continued to pressure Parker not to go to work when Hattori visited, saying it was "important" that Kawada know she was complying so the president "could have good peace of mind."

After that second call, "it was clear to her that both defendant Kawada and defendant Aoki were terrified of defendant Etsuko Hattori, and would do anything, including violate the law and facilitate racism and sexism in the workplace, in order to make sure [Hattori] not be 'offended' by the sight of a Japanese female Seiko employee" working in the New York boutique, the suit claims.

But in another call, on Nov. 21, Seiko's director of retail operations told Parker "she could report to work" on the day of Hattori's visit, the suit said.

That director, Ceres Sosa-Blundo, was speaking English when she told Parker that Kawada and Aoki "needed to understand the situation" when Parker asked if she should listen to Sosa-Blundo or the top Seiko brass.

But when Parker asked "what Seiko would do if [Hattori] fired her ... Ms. Sosa-Blundo responded that she did not 'think' that would happen," the suit said.

The suit says Parker was ordered in Japanese by the top Seiko executives in the U.S. not to go work but was told in English by a lower-ranking executive that she could go to work.

The next morning, which was the day of Hattori's visit, Parker called Turi and said she wasn't going to the store because she was "under incredible stress and had been unable to sleep."

In a later call with Aoki, the suit says, he confirmed to Parker that "it was likely that Seiko would make the same request" to Parker to not be at the store if "Hattori returned to New York," the suit said.

Parker's suit says that since the incident, neither Kawada nor Aoki speak to her on the telephone, as they had in the past. And during the single visit the two executives have made to the store since then, neither of them spoke to her or "acknowledged her presence in the boutique," the suit said.