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Black Flag: How to Avoid Working for a Shady Japanese Company

It's important to draw the line between working hard and being deviously overworked by a company that may want to bend the rules by manipulating new or junior employees. Here are some tips.

By 11 min read

Every year, people move to Japan to work or study because it has such an attractive culture. The art, philosophy and manners are often envied around the world. Japan, however, like all other countries, is not perfect and one area that really stands out in that regard is the work culture. This is usually one of the biggest challenges for foreigners trying to assimilate to life in Japan. I know that it was for me. I used to work at a job that seemed to suck the life out of me due to bad business practices. I was manipulated financially and emotionally into working under illegal circumstances. Once I looked up my rights, I realized that I didn’t have to put up with such abhorrent behavior. The language and visas might be difficult, but sometimes workplaces can be downright intolerable.

Of course, most Japanese workplaces are fine (if a little more intense than their Western counterparts) but a minority ruin the country’s reputation by not following labor laws and abusing workers. Japanese media have nicknamed these places of employment as burakku kigyou (ブラック企業) or “black corporations” or “black businesses.” These companies, rather than the manufacturing “sweatshops” that may come to mind, tend to revolve around office work.

These are categorized by abusive working conditions such as unpaid overtime, harassment by superiors, failure to pay salaries and other deplorable tactics.

What is a black company?

The term was coined by IT workers who were some of the first people to complain about their companies’ abusive policies online in the early 2000s. Because of the anonymity of forums, people were able to share how truly soul crushing their work was, sparking discussions of these issues in mainstream Japanese media. In fact, every year since 2012, companies have been nominated for “Most Evil Corporation” at the Black Company Awards (Japanese) by a team of anonymous journalists. While you might think the list of companies comprises lesser-known organizations (it does), it also includes some heavy hitters in the Japanese business world (for example, the 2017 list of nominees includes names such as Yamato Transport, Daiwa House, Taisei Construction, NHK, Niigata Municipal Hospital, Panasonic, Inazaya supermarket chain, as well as other various moving, pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies).

Often people find themselves working for these companies and don’t know how to escape. An uncomfortable truth is that for some — the only escape is death. In fact, workers in Japan routinely die from “overwork,” a phenomenon so unpleasantly common it has its own word in Japanese: karoshi. According to the health ministry, in fiscal 2016, there were 107 recognized cases of karoshi (deaths attributed to overwork) and 84 suicides and suicide attempts prompted by overwork. Some reports estimate the number of these types of deaths could be ten times higher.

Being trapped in a stressful, abusive situation is obviously not something anyone should wish on another person, so here is how to avoid horrible workplaces when job searching.

… often people find themselves working in these companies and can’t escape.

Workers rights

First, you need to know what type of treatment to which you are entitled under Japanese law. A company that assigns you lots of hard work and has an unpleasant boss is not necessarily a black company. In order to be considered a black company, they have to be breaking the law. Obviously, no job is going to advertise illegal treatment of workers, that’s just asking for trouble, but knowing what to look for will certainly help.

Under Japanese law you are entitled to:

  1. A workplace free of discrimination against foreign nationals.
  2. Clear indication of working conditions, such as a contract that specifies your wages and working hours.
  3. Freedom from forced labor, through blackmail or coercion.
  4. Be able to give notice of departure without paying a penalty fee.
  5. Protection from being fired for being sick, unless you are absent from your job for thirty (30) days due to the illness.
  6. Thirty (30) days notice of dismissal.
  7. Payment of wages (the pay must be at least the hourly minimum wage for your prefecture).
  8. Working hours totalling no more than 44 hours a week, with at least four days off per month.
  9. Extra pay for overtime, holiday work and work after midnight.
  10. Annual leave with pay after being employed for six months.
  11. Return of outstanding wages and other property after leaving a company.
  12. Compliance with all health and safety regulations.

Before you start your employment — or immediately after — you must make sure your new workplace complies with these. If they don’t follow even one of these laws, you can be sure other problems arise. Many jobs have a one- or three-month probation period where you can leave your job with a shorter notice. If yours does, you may want to take advantage of this and leave as soon as possible.

First research the company

There are online resources for finding out if a company is considered “black” or not. You can find reviews from past employees on websites such as Glassdoor, Gooverseas or the Reddit teaching in Japan page (be aware, however, that overly negative criticism from disgruntled ex-employees isn’t always a reliable indicator of true working conditions).

Even better, try to actually speak to someone who used to work there, if possible. Ask them if workers rights (as listed above) are respected. If you can’t find anyone to talk to, try a Google search of the company with the word “lawsuit,” just in case.

If everything seems fine, make sure to ask about all of your rights during the interview. Black companies often rely on workers not knowing their rights, so if an interviewer seems unhappy with you asking these questions, you have probably dodged a bullet

Double check your working hours

Some companies may not see themselves as breaking the law because the concept of going above and beyond is so ingrained in Japanese culture.

Black companies often rely on workers not knowing their rights…

Make sure to ask about your working hours and if this includes meetings, briefings and ceremonies. Any time your job requires you to be on location should be paid — it is illegal to schedule you to do something without pay, even if it is just being in the office.

A common example of this in the English teaching world is only paying teachers for lessons and not for planning time, meetings or spaces between lessons. I had to deal with this system and found I was working a lot of unpaid time, and was scolded for relaxing in the time I was not being paid for.

A contract may say you are only working four hours a day, but if those hours are made up of 40 minute lessons with an unpaid 20-minute break to prepare for the next lesson between them, then you are actually working an extra two hours each day. Split shifts can turn a manageable job into one that swallows your whole life. Make sure to ask for an example schedule before committing to anything.

Check competing salaries

Obviously, this is something you should do while job searching but instead of looking at the total earnings, look at how much work you would have to put in for the salary you earn. The smart thing would be to the choose the job with the highest salary to lowest hours ratio, but it can be more complicated than that.

Companies that advertise a higher amount of working hours may actually be the better choice, as suspiciously low hours often fall into the “too good to be true” category. Some companies lie about how many hours their employees work, often making fake schedules or recording holidays that never occurred. Try to find a job with a realistic amount of working hours to be safe.

What if I’m already in a black company?

Black company bosses often have a way of manipulating their employees to keep them working there and put up with all of the terrible treatment. You have to make sure the person you are about to work under is trustworthy. Try to remain logical and remember your rights, no matter how charming or harmless the interviewer might seem.

Unfortunately, some companies can be good at hiding their illegal practices until you are already hired. For example, many companies get around the overtime issue by encouraging employees to clock out at a certain time while also having them continue to work on premises, outside at a coffee shop or at home, so it doesn’t show up as overtime.

If you suspect your company is asking you to be complicit in illegal practices, then it is better to speak up. Problems are bound to snowball over time as your company pushes you to see how much you will take. I learnt this unfortunate fact from experience.

Unfortunately, some companies can be good at hiding their illegal practices until you are already hired.

Things to look out for in the early days of a new job are:

  • Not getting a visa straight away. Yes, it can take time to process a visa, but your company should send off the paper work as soon as possible. It is important to note your visa will be linked to your place of employment but that does not mean your boss can revoke it. Only the immigration bureau can revoke your visa — and only if you break the law. If you are fired, it is still not revoked: you are allowed three months to find a new job before that happens. I know of bosses who have threatened to take visas away from foreign workers upon being fired, but this is not within their power.
  • Being paid under the table. This is done to avoid taxes but can cause problems for you later on when you have to pay your residency tax. If the numbers of your bank account and your pay stubs don’t add up you could be accused of tax evasion.
  • Following on from the previous point, some bosses have managed to convince workers to create a new bank account in their name that the company then controls. This is definitely not legal and a terrible abuse of workers. No bank accounts, apartment leases or property of any kind property should be registered in your name by another party. This is done to shift the tax burden from them to you. You could end up paying tax for earnings you never see, or worse have your name be used to accumulate debts you didn’t know about. I had to go to great lengths to seperate myself financially from my previous job. It is much better to handle your own finances, no matter what anyone at your work might say.
  • One of the most common abuses that people have to deal with at work is harassment. Power harassment is using your superior position to force employers to work beyond their contracts — or do anything not spelled out in your job description (or worse). This is basically bullying. Your boss controls your employment, but they don’t control your life. They should not be making your do anything other than contracted work.

This leads us to sexual harassment. The hardest thing to complain about, but the most serious. Sexual predators are the same, no matter the country or language. You should not have to deal with any behavior that makes you feel uncomfortable in any way. There are not many resources to help with these situations here, but there is a counselling service available from the Ministry of Justice. Often, the best course of action is to report the perpetrator and leave these jobs, never looking back.

No job is worth this, especially in a country that currently has a problem filling all of its vacant positions.

Working for a black company is not an experience I would wish upon anyone. It really took a toll on me and was too much of a leap from a British working environment (not that all Western work environments are exemplar, to be fair… ). Many Japanese people seem to be able to cope with these situations better perhaps because of a highly dedicated work culture. Even so, any employment where even just a few circumstances such as these arise is too much. You should not have to deal with any of the problems mentioned in this piece. You might feel that you can handle this kind of situation or that you need to take a job like this because you’ve got no other  options, but ultimately — it’s not worth it. The stress and grief of working for a black company takes a lot more out of you than you earn in return.

I certainly don’t want to scare anybody away from teaching English in Japan. There more good companies than bad out there. If you are looking, as a start, make sure you check out some of the many reputable companies that advertise job offers here on the Gaijinpot Jobs site.

Be vigilant when scanning job advertisements, ask the hard questions and never be afraid to walk away from an unhealthy situation.

Have you had any experiences working for a disreputable company? Do you have any tips for early warning signs that someone may be in one of those positions? Let us know in the comments!

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