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Beware of Toxic Employer, the Black Company in Japan

Have you ever read manga or watched the anime ReLIFE, The Laughing Salesman, Cells at Work! Code Black (a spinoff of Cells at Work!), and Zombie 100: Bucket List of the Dead? All of these series brought up a dreadful working environment in their plots. Unfortunately, such issues are also happening in real life. The companies that treat their employees poorly in Japan are called Black Companies.

What is a Black Company?

Black company (ブラック企業, burakku kigyō) is a term for a company that is harmful to their employees’ welfare as they don’t comply with the Japanese Labor Standards Act. The Labor Standards Act is the law for employment in Japan. It defines how companies should treat their employees, such as working hours and wages.

The color black in the term signifies shadiness. It was initially internet slang used by IT workers in the early 2000s. The term is now widely used in the media and applicable to any industry. It’s also associated with poor work-life balance and death caused by the overwork phenomenon in Japan.

Unfortunately, black companies are not hard to find in Japan. In 2012, some lawyers, journalists, and non-profit organization workers formed an independent committee named the Most Evil Corporations Award Committee to raise awareness of the toxic working environment. They gathered data and published a nomination list of black companies. The Most Evil Corporations Award would be given to the company that was voted the most by the public. The award was held annually until 2019. It was canceled in 2020 as the committee was busy with the rise of employment issues during the pandemic.

The Most Evil Corporation award was held seriously like how an official award would be. The committee held a symposium to discuss the nominee of the year, pre-events or seminars about related topics, a press conference to announce the nominated company, and an award ceremony at the end of online voting. The nominations were not limited to private companies but were also subjected to local government and ministry. Some corporations that have been awarded are Mitsubishi Electric Corporation (Grand Prize Award 2019), Hikkoshisha Group (Black Company Award 2017), and Yamada Denki (Black Company Award 2014). The winners were invited to the award ceremony and would receive a copy of the Labor Standard Acts as a gift, but of course, no company ever came.

The Signs of Black Company

To identify a black company, you don’t need to see if a company is ever listed in the Most Evil Corporation award nominees. You can simply check if the company has one or more of these signs.

1. Low salary or not receiving salary increases

The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare set a minimum wage per prefecture (2021 data). If your paycheck is under these numbers, it’s a clear red flag of a black company.

Regarding salary, companies in Japan typically give raises annually if you’re under membership-type employment. If you’re hired through job-type employment, you will receive a wage increase based on your workload and performance. You should question your company if you don’t get it after working there for a few years.

2. Long working hours

According to the Japanese Standards Act, employees can only work 8 hours a day (40 hours a week). They can work overtime 15 hours a week, 27 hours per two weeks, 45 hours a month, and 360 hours a year if the company submits some paperwork and is approved by the Labor Standards Inspection Office. Under particular circumstances, the legal overtime limit can be up to 80 hours.

Working overtime

However, long working hours are pretty common in Japan, so it can’t be the only sign of black companies. Based on government data, among 8,904 companies between April 2020 and May 2021, 2,982 offices made their employees work overtime more than 80 hours a month, 1,878 workplaces had more than 100 hours, and 93 companies forced 200 hours of overtime. Many employees maintain their job because moving to another company does not guarantee better work hours.

3. Little or no overtime pay

The worst thing after having so much overtime is not getting paid for it. The overtime fee is 25% of the employee’s regular wage. If the overtime surpasses 60 hours a month, the fee would be 50% of the salary. Overtime at night (10 p.m to 5 a.m) has a different rate of 50% of the normal wage and 75% if it exceeds the monthly limit. Black companies will give you lower pay than what you are entitled to or nothing at all with the excuse that it’s included in your salary.

4. Very few or no days off

All employees in Japan, full-time or part-time workers, are entitled to have annual paid leave after working for 6 months in the company. The number of leaves depends on how long you have worked. Full-time employees receive 10-20 days, and part-timers get 1-15 days. On top of that, Japan has 16 days of public holidays.

Even though it’s rare for employees in Japan to use all of their paid leaves, the company should still give them to them. Threatening and denying employees that want to take leave are signs of a black company. The company should not be privy to employees’ activities or be intimidating when they want to use their rights.

5. Harassment

Abusive superiors or coworkers are unacceptable anywhere. These are 5 types of harassment that often happen in the work office.

  • Power harassment (パワハラ) is physical and verbal abuse. Denying rights and threatening are some examples. Abusive companies also always make policies that put employees at a disadvantage.

  • Sexual harassment (セクハラ) is making one uncomfortable by asking a personal question, constantly inviting them to events outside work, touching without explicit consent, and forcing any kind of relationship.

  • Moral harassment (モラハラ) is similar to bullying, in which leaving and ignoring some individuals.

  • Alcohol harassment (アルハラ) correlates to drinking culture in a Japanese office. Forcing employees to drink alcohol against their will or beliefs is considered harassment.

  • Maternity harassment (マタハラ) is targeted pregnant women and working mothers. Such harassment can be not giving a needed break, denying maternity leaves, and forcing them to quit.

How to Avoid Black Companies in Japan?

It would be a great hassle to leave toxic companies because they can threaten you. Therefore, preventing such things from happening should be your priority. If you’re a job seeker, you must do these steps before applying to any company.

  • Scrutinize the job posting

The words and information written in job postings often show how the company is. Using abstract terms such as feels rewarding (やりがいがある) is a sign of black company. Since they don’t offer real benefits, they use abstract words to attract employees. If the company includes their offering salary, you must check if it’s not too low or too high. Jobs with an unusually high salary can be interpreted as a fixed overtime fee, which means you have to work overtime, and the payment is not adjusted to how many hours you do.

You should also be concerned if the job posting repeats the whole year. It means the company has a high turnover rate. Many employees resigning in a short period is a sign of how the company treats its employees.

  • Read company evaluations or reviews

It would be great to meet former employees of the company you want to apply to and ask about their experience. If you don’t know anyone, you can search in your school’s alumni list or join a professional in the industry community. You can also read reviews on social media or company evaluation websites, such as Tokhimo Review. It’s a company review website focusing on how a company accommodates foreign employees and provides a global standard work environment.

However, note that treatment toward local and foreign employees may be different. There are a lot of cases where the seemingly decent company doesn’t understand how a visa works. Even though they agree to sponsor your visa, they can take their words back later. It can be frustrating because they waste your time and leave with you a little time before the visa expires.

  • Know the Labor Standards Act

Foreigners and fresh graduates can be easy prey for black companies. They cunningly exploit their inexperience or desperation to find a job. Therefore it’s crucial to know the Japanese Labour Standards Law to stand up for yourself. Joining a community or union will also help you recognize employment law violations.

What if You Work in a Black Company?

When you realize there is something wrong with your company, the first thing you can do is talk with your employer or HR department. If they are unwilling to hear or correct the issue, you can report it to the government through the Working Conditions Consultation Hotline. The service is also foreigners-friendly and available in 14 languages.

If your situation is so bad that you can tick all 5 black company signs above, resigning is the best move. Your company may make it hard for you by threatening that you can’t quit and not paying your previous salary. However, you can always legally leave. Contact the Labor Standards Inspection Office if you need help.


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