Japanese Labor Law


You might have an image of Japan as a highly productive society where millions white collar workers work long hours but in doing so achieve high productivity, thereby creating a stable income for their families and a high level of production at the office. If that's your image, you should change it to something more realistic. In the first place, Parkinson's law and Brooks's law say you're partly wrong.

It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend an entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.

— C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson's Law (1955).
Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later... Nine women can't make a baby in one month.

— Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month (1975).


Brooks was talking specifically about software projects, but Parkinson was speaking generally. Most of the time, we work eight hours a day. Three or four of those hours are spent teaching, two or three are spent preparing for lessons and grading, and perhaps one hour a day is spent in meetings. This varies from person to person and year to year. On top of our forty hours a week teaching, some teachers are assigned clubs to supervise. Clubs meet after school several times a week. Supposing a club meets five times a week and takes two hours, forty hours becomes fifty. Some teachers — not me — stay late in the evening after their clubs are finished to grade papers, write tests, and do other desk work. Students come to school six days a week, and teachers only work five days a week, but if there's an event happening on your normal day off, you have to work. Most of the time we don't actually get a replacement holiday. In theory, we should get one, but if you were to ask when that day is, the school would tell you that it's during winter vacation, spring vacation, or summer vacation. This sounds unreasonable at first glance, but we knew the working conditions going in, and during winter, spring, and summer vacation, we get a lot of time off, so maybe it's OK.

It's OK, but it's not productive. Some people work long hours, but when you do that you get tired. When you're tired it takes you longer to do everything. I could try working twelve hour days, but I'd still only get as much done as I currently do with eight hour days. On top of that, if I worked twelve hours a day I wouldn't get to do any hobbies in the evening. I wouldn't be able to go jogging or dance or bake cookies. I've spoken with my friends, and most of us feel the same way: If we have to work too much, we do everything slower. That forces us to either do less or to do lower quality work, both of which suck for everyone.

The kind of setup I describe is not specific to my school. Many other private and public schools in Japan operate in a similar fashion. Public schools are on average a little better because they are more heavily regulated and because teachers routinely transfer between schools, which prevents administrators from making underhanded policies or unwritten rules.

I mention all of this because motivation is important. When I talk or write about Japanese labor law, I'm doing so not out of laziness but rather because I want to do a good job. Labor law is directly designed to protect workers, but indirectly it's there to make everyone's lives better. When workers work reasonable hours, they are happier and do better work, and this benefits society at large.


Foreign Workers Handbook

The Labor Consultation Center is a branch of the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Affairs department in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The center provides consultation for all employees in Tokyo who have legal and contractual questions relating to labor situations and laws. The center has produced a great document, the Foreign Workers Handbook that summarizes important parts of labor law in both English and Japanese with the worker in mind. It's written so that regular workers can read it and see how the law is supposed to support them. Although the center only provides consultation for people who work in Tokyo, the document itself is about national labor law and is a useful reference for anyone working anywhere in Japan.

The Labor Standards Law which stipulates working conditions, states that no employer shall discriminate against or favor any employee by reason of nationality or other status with regard to wages, working hours or other working conditions. The same may be said of related labor laws, for example, the Minimum Wages Law. Despite the existence of these laws, lack of knowledge of them causes many problems to arise. Most individuals do not fully recognize that these laws can be the means of solving or avoiding problems. Thus, this handbook was prepared to prevent labor problems and assist foreign workers to understand their workers’ rights in this country. This book explains about essential legal matters, as well as related labor laws, procedures for residing and taxes concerning working in Japan. It's our sincere desire that readers will find this handbook useful.

— Foreign Workers Handbook (2011).


Contract Hire

Many of us are hired on one-year contracts that may be renewed several times. If you are, in most cases you can't be fired mid-contract. When your contract expires, you might not get a new one. However, your employer has to tell you about this 30 days in advance, and if you ask, they have to tell you why.

Employers are to clearly state the renewal or cancellation of contracts, and the criterion for contract renewal. Employers are to give at least 30 days prior notice when terminating contracts for employees who have been employed for over one year on a contract for a specified period. When employees request a clear statement on the reason(s) for the termination of their employment, employers must comply promptly in writing.

— Foreign Workers Handbook (2011).

A person on a 1-year contract should in principle be dismissed only at the end of the contract. In contrast, a permanent hire employee might receive less warning if they are going to be laid off. Since permanent hire employees have no natural end date, employers have greater freedom to fire them mid-year.

An employer is not allowed to dismiss employees with a fixed period of contract before the contract expires, except for in cases with an unavoidable reason (Section 1 of Article 17, Labor Contract Act), or when a company goes bankrupt (Article 631, Civil Law).

— Foreign Workers Handbook (2011).

This only applies to dismissal based on business or economic reasons. In contrast, if you can't follow the workplace rules or do your job, you might be dismissed at any time, regardless of the duration of your employment.


Rules of Employment

When you start working at a job, you should receive a copy of the rules of employment. If you're not good at reading Japanese, your employer should make efforts to help you understand the contents of it. Even if they don't, you should figure out what it says by using a dictionary or asking a friend. Verbal agreements are a bad idea, because there's no record of who said what, and both employers and employees can be forgetful or deceitful. It's better to have everything on paper.

Rules of employment stipulate working conditions and office regulations. Any company which employs ten or more workers on a steady basis must set such rules of employment (Article 89), and submit them to the Labor Standards Inspection Office. A company is also required to make these rules known to the employees (Article 106). It is therefore desirable for employers to do so in a language that their employees understand, if they do not understand Japanese. Rules of employment shall not infringe any law and any collective agreement. A labor contract, in which the working conditions are inferior to the rules of employment standards, shall be invalid. In such a case, the parts of the contract, which are invalid, shall be governed by the standards stipulated in rules of employment (Article 92, Labor Standards Law/Article 12, Labor Contract Law).

— Foreign Workers Handbook (2011).

The rules of employment must state when work starts and ends, rules or policies about days off and paid leave, matters pertaining to salary, and retirement information. This can be important. Last month, a friend of mine was asked to come to work forty-five minutes early to supervise some early-morning study sessions. He was not paid for this extra work, he didn't receive any replacement time off, and that type of work is not what he was contracted to do. This unpaid overtime work seemed weird back then, and knowing what we know now, it was clearly inappropriate. It has since been decided that this type of overtime work will not happen again.


Paid Leave

You are entitled to paid leave and you can take it throughout the year.

The Labor Standards Law stipulates the annual paid leave system so that employees may take leave at any time and enjoy a pleasant life. "An employer shall grant annual paid leave of 10 working days, either consecutive or divided up into portions, to an employee who has been employed continuously for 6 months calculated from the day of hiring and who has reported for work on at least 80% of the total working days" (Article 39). Part-timers can also take annual paid leave depending on the number of their working days, even if their fixed working days are relatively few.

— Foreign Workers Handbook (2011).

If you request paid leave your employer cannot refuse. They can move your paid leave to a different date if it "would interfere with the normal operation of the enterprise". That sounds like they can make you take all of your paid leave over summer vacation, but this is not true. Paid leave can be used throughout the year. If you have a preplanned annual paid leave system — and if it's not in your terms of employment or contract, you don't have one — then employers can restrict most of your paid leave to fixed terms. Even in these situations, you can use five of your paid leave days any time of the year.

An employee may request paid leave anytime but may be asked by his or her employer to change the date(s) of the leave if his or her absence in the requested period would interfere with the normal operation of the enterprise. Paid holidays can be taken within 2 years from when it was allowed, but an employee can not take it after the day of his/her resignation.

— Foreign Workers Handbook (2011).

What counts as "interfering with normal business operation" is a legal question, and courts have apparently relied on many situation-specific details when ruling on these cases. One thing we know is that attempts to force the use of paid leave into fixed blocks on the calendar are not legal. If you want to take a normal workday off, and there's nothing special happening then, your employer should consent. Employers might try to discourage this. I'm a teacher, and administrators at my school would find it mildly inconvenient if I were absent on a day I normally teach. Someone would have to substitute for my classes, and that person might not know the students, pace, or materials very well. Fortunately, labor law says it doesn't matter what your boss finds inconvenient. Paid leave is for employees to use, not for employers to dictate.

Requesting Paid Leave

I screwed up last year when I asked for two days off. I asked a supervisor verbally if I could have a day off, the supervisor asked why, and after hearing my reason he said no. Twice. Later I researched the situation and learned why that should not have happened. But it did happen, partly because my supervisor did not consider the matter thoroughly, and partly because I didn't understand my rights as an employee.

Instead of asking verbally for the day off, I should have filled out a form requesting it. It's best to submit requests a long time in advance, and it's wise to keep a copy for yourself. When filling out the form, at least at my workplace, there's a box that asks the reason for taking paid leave. Since the reason you want to take paid leave is immaterial to whether your employer grants or denies it, you should write something uninformative (私事). Or you can write the details and see what happens, but that can bring its own set of troubles. A coworker of mine was once asked to rewrite a request for paid leave because they didn't feel his stated reason was "good enough" to justify the day off. He rewrote his request and got the day off, but the situation was weird. By law it doesn't matter what his reason was — the employer is not permitted to accept or decline requests based on such information.

This year, I requested paid leave again. First they said no. I asked why my reasons for taking paid leave mattered, when I would ever be able to use paid leave, and also for written documentation on the use of paid leave at my workplace. They reconsidered my request and said OK. This was nerve-wracking at the time, because I was making a stand against my boss's decision. Fortunately everyone was professional about it, and I feel pretty good about how we resolved things. One factor that helped is I only communicated my questions and concerns via email. It's easy to get riled up when talking about why you think you're getting screwed. That's best done at the bar with your friends, and not when talking with your bosses. Better to keep things in writing so everyone can stay calm and think clearly. My only regret here is that I didn't do the research and push the issue a year ago. Oh well.