A man fired by a bank for taking a free detergent sample from a nearby store wins his battle in court

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Tokyo — The Tokyo District Court typically garners headlines for high-profile cases, parsing issues such as whether married couples should be allowed to use separate surnames, privacy battles over the “right to be forgotten,” and gender discrimination in academia. But a bizarre lawsuit this month led the court into more prosaic territory.

It could be dubbed the case of the Freebie-Lover vs. the Angry Store Owner.

As chronicled in Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, the saga began just before opening hours at a shopping mall in Nagano Prefecture. On his way to work, an unidentified bank branch assistant manager happened to spot a nearby store offering modest giveaways — free packets of laundry detergent displayed in front of the store to lure customers.

Noting the “Help yourself” sign, he did so, and then went on his way.

But it did not sit well with the store’s staff. After checking to make sure the security cameras had captured the suds-lifter red-handed, an employee quickly informed the bank that, as the soap-grab had taken place before business hours, it amounted to theft.

The bank executive, the man’s boss, and even the bank’s area manager offered multiple, profuse apologies. All bank employees were ordered to alter their commute routes to avoid walking in front of the cellphone store — no small feat, as the store is located on the corner just opposite the bank branch.

But the store’s management was not to be placated, despite the fact that the promotional giveaways had been provided free by the manufacturer and were likely worth less than $2 each. The store demanded that the bank employee be transferred to another branch.

Worried about possible fallout, the bank ended up firing the man, who then sued his former employer on grounds of unfair dismissal.

Since the detergent was outside for the taking, he argued, grabbing a packet could not possibly constitute larceny — and besides, as a potential customer, he was entitled to one.

For its part, the bank argued that given the gravity of his job handling customers’ assets, the man’s decision to pocket the soap — while perhaps not filthy lucre — fell outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. It was also noted that the man in question had a history of scooping up freebies from the shop.

In its March 8 verdict, the Tokyo District Court ruled that while such an act could be construed as theft, and in specific instances could justify dismissal, such a harsh penalty was unwarranted in this case. The fact that the man was technically still off-duty when the malfeasance occurred, the court said, obviated the need for any harsh penalty by the bank.

Noting the trivial value of the pilfered item, and the man’s repeated displays of remorse, it ordered the bank to give the man backpay, and his job back.

“The time and money invested in this case by all parties,” an Asahi columnist wrote in a postscript, “could have bought thousands of packets of detergent.”

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