Japan is often viewed as an amazing place to live. While I definitely agree that Japan is great, they still have a lot of the same problems that appear in other countries. Just like in the US, it’s not unheard of for companies to toe the line on labor laws. I’ve had several encounters with this over the years, but one stands out over the others.
A few years ago, I had a particularly negative and somewhat scary experience. A friend had set up an interview for an English teaching position through a connection. I met her briefly for a character check, before she sent my information to the CEO of the company looking for an English tutor.
This was already a little odd, but the company was a leader in the talent industry in Japan. I assumed it was for privacy reasons.
The interview took place in a nondescript café in the Roppongi/Omotesando area. I was asked about my experience in tutoring English, how I catered teaching plans to individual students, and so on. Aside from the location, it seemed to be a fairly standard interview. At one point, the CEO asked me if I could drive. I said that I could, but that I wasn’t experienced driving in Japan.
The CEO gave me her LINE account, as well as the LINE account of the woman who would become my manager. I showed up to the first day of work, unsure of what exactly I’d be doing. I brought some English teaching materials, only to be asked to take a driving test with my manager. She was not interested in the teaching materials I had brought.
I performed well. So well that they fired the CEO’s current driver on the spot.
That should have been my first major red flag, but I was naïve.
When I asked about my contract, I was told that the company only had verbal contracts and therefore I did not need to sign anything. This was also a red flag. After the first day, I ended up working from around 9 am until 10 pm or later. On average, I worked about 14 hours a day, not including the 3+ hours I spent commuting, every single day for the 30 days that I was employed.
Sometime into my second week, I told my manager that I didn’t think I could handle the work hours. She gave me a pep talk that ended up mostly just being a “suck it up, we all went through it” lecture. I’d bring it up every few days from here on out.
There were days when I couldn’t return home. Sometimes I had to sleep in karaoke boxes or the company-owned dorm. The company got increasingly aggressive in requesting I move out of my apartment and into the dormitory. They tried to sell me on the short commute and cheap rent, but I was wary. It occurred to me that they wanted to prevent me from seeking employment elsewhere.
As my stress level increased from overwork, I developed moderate dyshidrosis that grew progressively worse and made holding the steering wheel painful. I was exhausted from getting between 4 to 6 hours of sleep a night. My meals times were erratic because I wasn’t permitted to eat in front of the boss and I spent most of my day in the car.
I kept telling myself that I would only stay until my visa had been sponsored and then look for better opportunities. Breaking contract is generally frowned upon, but I had a verbal contract and not a written one.
My longest day was one where I worked from 7:30 am until 1 am. This was the day I said, “no more.” I set up a discussion with the CEO in her home office to negotiate my verbal contract terms by asking for at least one day off per month and for more reasonable hours. I reminded her that I was still on a student visa, which limited me to 28 hours per week.
Instead of truly listening to my grievances, she launched into a tirade. She insulted my character, my personality, and implied that no other company would bother hiring someone as lazy as me. At this point, I was very near boiling point but I managed to leave calmly.
I showed up to work the next day very discouraged. My manager tried to cheer me up and mentioned that legal wanted me to bring my passport to work so they could sponsor my work visa. I’m lucky I mentioned that to the CEOs live-in cleaning staff. They told me not to hand over my passport, because it would not be returned with my residence card.
They never got theirs back.
This was my final red flag.
The next day, I drove the boss to the drop off point for her business trip to Osaka. I finished my day of work and then messaged both my manager and the CEO that I would was resigning. I said I would come in the next day to drop off the keys.
When I dropped them off, the head of legal was there to make sure I signed an NDA.
Red Flags and “Black Kigyou”
I was still pretty young when this happened and it was my first full time working experience. But there were plenty of signs that this company was what the Japanese media dubs burakku kigyou or black companies.
The label was created because some companies have very exploitative employment practices. They’ve become so notorious in Japan that a group of activists and journalists put forward nominees for the label in 2017. Even well-known companies like NHK, Panasonic, Daiwa House Industry, and Yamato Transport made the list of nominees.
One woman working at NHK died of overwork in 2013 after logging 139 hours of overtime in the month leading up to her death, meaning she worked a total of 299 hours in one month. Usually full time employees work about 160 hours per month, so she was nearing double that. It was also noted that she only took off 2 days total for that month.
She is one of around 2000 people per year that die in Japan as a result of karoshi or death by overwork.
But why does Japan have such an issue with overtime? In part, it stems from Japanese ideas of what defines a team. Many workers feel guilty leaving earlier than their coworkers, even if they’ve finished their work for the day. There is compounded by the senpai-kohai, or senior-junior, system that makes it a social taboo for employees to leave earlier than their seniors.
There’s also a historical factor. In post-war Japan, wives were still primarily homemakers and husbands often depended on overtime pay to support their family. This is no longer really true, as companies looked for places to cut costs after the Japanese economic bubble burst in 1991 and overtime pay was one such cost.
Appearance is another important factor. An employee that works a lot of overtime will appear to be more dedicated and hardworking in Japanese culture, and therefore more valuable, than one who does not.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that most industries have a few companies that could be called such. It seems to be especially true in the eikaiwa industry, where companies with unpaid overtime, varying work schedules, forced vacation, and poor management are standard. In cases where overtime is paid, it’s fairly common for it to be included in one’s monthly salary.
Labor Laws in Japan
But what’s legal and what’s not? Let’s examine the abusive practices I encountered, as well as some common problems that English teachers may face. First, and foremost, the labor law applies to all workers in Japan, regardless of nationality.
Term-based contracts are quite common, especially in the English teaching industry. Unlike a full-time company worker, these contracts have set duration and are renewed as needed. The maximum period of these contracts for English teachers is three years. If your contract is longer, it is not a valid contract.
Companies are also prohibited from fixing a predetermined amount for damages in the event an employee breaks contract. This does not, however, prevent them from charging a penalty. The standard fees in the English teaching industry tend to be an amount withheld from your final paycheck, but it can be any amount the company deems necessary.
In the event of dismissal, employers must give a terminated employee at least 30 days advance notice. They can opt to fire an employee quicker, but at least 30 days of wages must be paid regardless of the employee’s final day. This does not apply if the employee quits.
When I rage quit my company, they withheld a substantial amount from my paycheck. As a result, I ended up earning only 130,000 yen for 30 days of work.
An important thing to note for employees of dispatch companies! If your company terminates your contract before your term ends, they are obligated to continue paying you for the duration of your contract. Furthermore, you do not have to work during this period, because your absence from work is attributable to your employer and they must pay you regardless.
Workers must also be paid in cash (or direct deposit), directly, in full, and on a set date at least once per month. There is some variance on minimum wage depending on prefecture, but you are still legally entitled to at least minimum wage even if your contract states otherwise.
Employers are legally required to grant employees at least 1 day off per week or 4 days off within a period of 4 weeks. A break of 45 minutes must be granted if an employee works 6 hours. This goes up to 60 minutes if an employee works 8 hours or more.
There is a chart for overtime rates, but in general employers are required to pay employees overtime, even if your contract states otherwise.
My employer did not satisfy the leave requirements stated in the labor law. They also did not pay me for overtime worked, according to my paystub.
Contrary to popular belief, employers do not have to grant national holidays. However, it is common practice in most industries for them to be observed. Workers are also legally entitled to at least 10 paid days off per year after their first 6 months.
This is often abused by English schools and dispatch companies. Employees are legally allowed to take their 10 paid holidays as needed, but many companies opt for a predetermined paid vacation period, usually in August and December, instead. This is a bit of a gray area, because they’re still granting paid vacation but they’re removing the employee’s freedom in choosing their days off.
Officially, the Japanese work day is set at 8 hours. And although the Japanese government is working to set a monthly maximum for logged overtime, there is currently no daily limit on logged hours. Worse, the keyword here is “logged” and some companies regularly alter work logs to forge their compliance with labor regulations.
If you are on a student visa, however, you cannot work more than 28 hours a week. I know many people, including myself, who had to deal with employers not wanting to honor that weekly maximum. In addition to more restrictions on the working environment, individual schools may have employment rules that must be followed or you may risk expulsion.
Ultimately, if you have any situation where you think your employer might be violating the labor law, I recommend contacting one of the many free consultation services for foreign workers. The English hotline for the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare is: 0570-001701
There is also a chart with labor bureau numbers at the bottom of the page here.
Verbal contracts are legal in Japan. Historically, the labor culture centered around verbal agreements and as such, they still persist today. Many companies prefer them to written ones. It lessens the paper trail and makes it much harder on the employees to prove there were any violations.
However, the lack of an employment contract also puts much more legal importance on employee handbooks and workplace rules. Work rules can be vague, but are still required. If your company has neither, as mine did, that is likely a violation of the Japanese labor law.
The company hiring me as an English tutor and switching my position to that of a company driver is also legal with verbal contracts because there wasn’t a predetermined agreement of what my job entailed.
If your company says they don’t have written contracts, try to insist on one.
The company I worked for made excuses on why they couldn’t provide one, but it’s best to obtain one so you can point to it later. You could be honest and explain that your culture never does verbal contracts or you could lie. A good option might be saying you need them for your home country’s tax or bank records.
Fixed-Term Contracts vs Long Term Employment
Japan is known for its traditional lifelong employment. Full-time employees are provided with company health insurance, pension after retirement, unemployment, job security, and more.
However, nearly all English teaching jobs are fixed-term contracts. This means that companies employ you for up to three years per contract and can renew as needed. There are also usually contract stipulations that keep employees under 29 hours. This is to avoid providing you with the legally required benefits that full term employees receive.
Receiving fixed-term contracts is not abuse, but it’s important to remember that they provide very little job security. Just this past spring, the Fukuoka Board of Education recently dropped the contract renewals of all of their GTs, or Guest Teachers, that were hired directly on fixed-term contracts and replaced them with teachers dispatched from Interac and OWLS.
This will ultimately cost the Fukuoka taxpayer twice as much per teacher, but the Fukuoka BoE believes the ability to replace foreign teachers quickly is worth it.
It’s frustrating to admit, but the majority of Japanese companies view foreign workers as replaceable. There seems to be this cemented notion that foreign workers only intend to stay for a short time. The prominence of fixed-term contracts in the English teaching industry is proof of this mindset.
If you intend to stay in Japan long-term, obtaining a regular staff contract is ideal.
How to Quit Your Job
Quitting in Japan isn’t all that different from quitting in the West. In general, it’s customary to give at least one month’s notice. If you are a full-time employee or you have a renewed contract, then you can usually give two weeks. Resignation should always be presented in written form, dated and signed, with a clearly stated end date.
You may have a tougher time if you have a fixed term contract and are looking to leave before you contract ends. I recommend trying to finish your contract, especially if you’re on your first year. It looks better to future employers and it usually helps prevent bridges from being burned.
As mentioned in the labor law section, employers can charge you for damages if you break contract. In general, it must be a feasible amount but 100,000 yen in damages isn’t uncommon. Payment is usually taken in the form of withholding wages from your final paycheck.
It can be even trickier if you live in a company-owned or company-arranged apartment. I was aware of the difficulties in quitting and stood firm against my company’s requests that I move into their dorms. Companies can use this as an excuse to charge you an even higher fee for damages.
If you can avoid it, I urge you to never move into a company apartment. In addition to your company (usually) overcharging for rent, it gives them leverage over you in the form of “fear of homelessness” which makes it harder to leave in the case of abuse.
I also advise having fully arranged your new employment before quitting. Avoid mentioning your resignation to any coworkers, even those you consider to be friends, until everything has been finalized. The Netflix series Aggretsuko gives a great image of the hazing you may suffer once it becomes known, although officially it is illegal.
Both you and your employer are legally required to report to Immigration that you have left your position within two weeks of your contract ending. Likewise, you are also required to report that you have been hired within two weeks. You can use their online form here.
Another important thing to note is that employers do not have the power to cancel your visa. I personally never had an issue with it, but I have friends who were threatened by companies when they turned in their resignation. Only Immigration has the power to revoke your visa and you won’t even enter their radar until you’ve been unemployed for several months.
Where to Search for Employment Opportunities?
There are a wide variety of places to look for work in Japan, especially if your visa is already sponsored.
We have another post on How to Get a Job in Japan.
A quick note, though – your visa status determines the kind of work you are permitted to do. The most common visa for foreign workers in Japan is the “Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services” visa. This is a particularly flexible status, but you should always verify that you’re allowed to be employed on your visa if switching industries.
English-language job boards include:
Japanese-language job boards include:
Best of luck to any who find themselves in an abusive company. I’ve been there and just know that you are not alone. Companies that respect the labor laws exist. You just need to find them.